As the Redskins wind down another disappointing season, many fans are hoping for a better showing next year. But DeMaurice Smith, who heads the NFL Players Association—the Washington-based union that represents pro football players—is touring the country with an unsettling outlook: Unless the fight between players and team owners is resolved, there won’t be a 2011 season.
In a time of nearly 10-percent unemployment, it’s tough to find sympathy for millionaire wide receivers. So Smith has enlisted powerful labor unions to help spread the word that an NFL lockout—or work stoppage—isn’t going to hurt just Santana Moss. Stadium workers, restaurant owners, parking attendants, and others will also be hit.
On a recent night, Smith appears before an audience of beer-drinking Steelers fans in a Pittsburgh sports bar. After United Steelworkers and AFL-CIO officials make their point—“We stand with the players”—Smith introduces Steelers safety Ryan Clark, lineman Max Starks, and quarterback Charlie Batch.
“I am proud to be in union country,” he tells the crowd of black-and-gold jerseys and Teamsters jackets. The Players Association represents about 1,900 athletes. But the unions it has partnered with have 44 million members. And hooking up with Big Labor is just one of the strategies Smith is pursuing.
Wearing a sharp gray suit and white dress shirt, Smith—who goes by “De”—works the crowd with the ease of a politician. At 46, he’s confident and energetic—shaking hands with union officials, smiling at Steelers players, chatting with fans. It’s not until he steps into the back seat of his chauffeur-driven sedan to return to his hotel that he betrays the downside of one of the highest-profile jobs in sports business—all those flights to and from the West Coast, the days away from his wife and two children in Bethesda, the weight of the 2011 NFL season.