The race to become the next executive director of the NFL Players Association took a sudden and bizarre turn shortly after midnight Thursday, when a potential threat to incumbent DeMaurice Smith was left off the ballot -- only to be added nearly 90 minutes later after the deadline had passed.
Jason Belser, the union's senior director of player services and development, was stunned to learn just after the 11:59 p.m. ET deadline that his name was not among the listed candidates who would challenge Smith when voting is scheduled to begin March 15 in Maui.
Belser said he received email confirmation from union executive Tom DePaso shortly after 5 p.m. ET Thursday that his application, with the minimum requirement of at least three player-representative nominations, had been received. However, the 11-year union employee was not on the official list that union president Eric Winston released on Twitter shortly after the midnight ET deadline.
"My plan first is for those who nominated me -- the more than three who nominated me -- to confer with the executive committee and De [Smith] to make sure that their nomination is honored," Belser told ESPN.com by phone shortly after midnight. "After that, I will get legal counsel to carry out their wishes and have me presented to be executive director, like all the other candidates, in 10 days."
Winston could not be reached for immediate comment. But a little more than an hour later, Winston took to Twitter to explain that he had a made a mistake.
Correction: Jason Belser is on the ballot. Unfortunate email oversight by me on a crazy last day. My apologies to Jason.— Eric Winston (@ericwinston) March 6, 2015
The final ballot lists Smith, Belser, former players Sean Gilbert and Robert Griffith, attorneys Jim Acho, Art McAfee and Andrew Smith, retired U.S. Navy Adm. John Stufflebeem, and Rob London, whose previous positions, according to his LinkedIn profile, include president at Rob London Sports & Entertainment Management and vice president of sports and entertainment at Dow Lohnes PLLC.
The fact that an unprecedented eight challengers received the mandatory three nominations each to get on the ballot can be construed two ways for the incumbent Smith: Either the player reps, who ultimately will select the executive director, want to hear alternative ideas as part of their due diligence, or they have concerns or doubts about Smith's ability to lead the union.
Further complicating matters for Smith is Belser, not only because he's known to be popular with the players but also because he's an in-house candidate. To outsiders, that can be construed as a reflection that Smith, who was first elected in 2009, has cracks in his support base. It also is in stark contrast to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who still has the public and unwavering support of the team owners despite the past year being the most controversial and embarrassing period of his tenure.
Smith's critics usually fall into one of two camps, contending that he either gave too many financial concessions to the owners in the last collective bargaining negotiation (which Smith strongly denies), or that his frosty and sometimes contentious relationship with Goodell has prevented the sides from working in a way that benefits the players. (Smith has said his actions are to protect the rights of the players.)
It's against that backdrop that the 32 player reps will meet in Maui starting March 13. The reps will listen to presentations from the candidates two days later, and if none receives the minimum 17 votes for election, the candidate or candidates with the fewest votes will be eliminated and another vote will be taken. The process will continue until someone reaches 17 votes.