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|DeMaurice Smith (right), seen here with Baltimore Ravens defensive back Domonique Foxworth, had to hit the ground running as the new NFLPA head.|
“ DeMaurice Smith isn't going to gain much by taking the hard line. And if the players have to back down at some point in this situation, I think he's savvy enough to know when that might be an option worth looking at. ” -- Michael Oriard, author, Oregon State professor and former NFL linemanIt's that type of response that Smith has been trying to create everywhere he goes. As Oriard -- who in 1974 participated in the NFLPA's first strike, a 44-day walkout -- pointed out, the issue that always has undermined the NFL Players Association is unity. While the MLBPA always has stuck together in difficult times, the NFLPA has never been able to mount a unified stand for long. That lack of cohesiveness nearly killed the union during various strikes in 1974, 1982 and 1987. Smith's job is to keep player division from creeping into this fight. It's also important that Smith adopt an approach that is productive over the duration of his reign. The major knock on Upshaw was always that he was too cozy with the league, even though he did accomplish plenty for the men he served. So it wouldn't be surprising for Smith to develop a working relationship with the league that is just as solid. He just seems too smooth and polished to operate with the same tough-guy, hard-line stance that marked the rule of baseball's recently retired union leader, Donald Fehr. In fact, it's hard to see that mindset working in the current NFL. "DeMaurice Smith isn't going to gain much by taking the hard line," Oriard said. "And if the players have to back down at some point in this situation, I think he's savvy enough to know when that might be an option worth looking at. The owners have a lot more leverage here because they're the ones with more wealth." That ultimately is something Smith will have to consider as we move closer to the possibility of 2011's becoming the first appearance of a work stoppage in the league in more than 20 years. Even if there is a lockout, the already deep-pocketed owners will still receive the $1 billion that DirecTV owes them for the 2011 season. That is a serious advantage in this situation. It gives the owners an upper hand that might prove tough to beat in the long run. But Smith doesn't seem to be focusing on that right now. He's been pushing for every team to disclose its financial situation completely so he can see just how strapped the owners claim to be. He's been calling on every player to prepare for the possibility that the game might grind to a halt. And he's been steadying himself for the biggest -- and the first fight -- of his tenure as NFLPA executive director. Look, the players would be the first to say they want to avoid a lockout. As Green Bay Packers inside linebacker Nick Barnett said: "I would definitely be concerned because I wouldn't get paid. But I think the owners and the PA will come to some kind of agreement and it will be good for both sides. We don't want a super win over them, and we don't want them to have a super win over us. We want to be fair, and they want to be fair. We just need to find out what fair is." Smith has to be hoping that type of rationality is apparent as this fight continues. He knew what he was signing up for, and he's willing to prove his mettle. But you also have to assume that his peers in other sports have to be thankful they're not in his shoes. After all, this is one heck of a way to start a career as the leader of a pro sports union. Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.