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‘Stay ready’: Inside DeMaurice Smith, NFLPA’s meeting with Chiefs players on CBA discussions

DeMaurice Smith
 

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — DeMaurice Smith is tired.

The executive director of the NFL Players Association has checked off 28 stops on his annual 32-team tour. And now, as he steps out of his hired black Chevy Suburban and gives the Kansas City Chiefs’ headquarters a once-over, Smith readies for visit No. 29.

The next 48 hours represent the final leg of his 5-½ week journey that included meetings with the Eagles, Cowboys and Vikings.

Smith and his team of union executives usually spread their stops out over a 10-week span, wrapping up just before Thanksgiving. But there’s an increased urgency this year.

The current collective bargaining agreement between the NFL’s owners and players union will expire in a season-and-a-half. There’s a strong belief among many within players and owners’ circles that the best bet to avoid a work stoppage is to reach an agreement within the next few months. So, soon after Smith concludes his tour, negotiations will resume.

Since the latest CBA talks on the eve of the season, the owners retreated to their corners to hash out elements of a potential deal. Smith and his team have done the same, criss-crossing the country every Sunday through Thursday for meetings with the players of every franchise.

Each year, Smith and Co. enter these meetings aiming to learn the players’ concerns on their working conditions. They work to educate on the importance of taking advantage of the benefits available to them, primarily in workers’ compensation to ensure any injuries suffered are covered by the team’s insurance policies for life. And this year’s other top priority: apprise them on the latest CBA negotiations while cautioning them on how to prepare to take care of their families in the event of a work stoppage.

“This job at 45 was one thing, but traveling at 55 is another thing,” Smith told USA TODAY Sports, referring to the last time he had to make his tour while simultaneously negotiating a new CBA. “Having the more condensed travel is a little bit better on an older body. It’s just over. The functionability of doing six teams a week instead of three teams a week. If you could do two teams a day, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, then you’re taking advantage of the fact that you’re traveling anyway. But I’d be lying if it doesn’t come a bit of a price at 55.”

It’s a bit after noon as Chiefs players begin filing into the conference room and settle into the rows of stadium-style seats. Some carry plates of unfinished lunches. Others drop backpacks on the floor next to them, plop into the plush seats and scarf down the contents of boxed meals as the video presenting the preamble of the NFLPA’s constitution begins playing on the giant theatre-style screen at the front of the room.

As is the case on every team visit, the NFLPA meeting is squeezed into an already busy, regimented day. So, the speakers waste no time getting to the heart of the matter.

The introductory slide of the union’s Powerpoint presentation says it all.

“WORK STOPPAGE IS COMING. #STAYREADY”

The tone in the union meeting regarding the possibility of a deal in the coming months is guarded.

“The deal’s not done. I don’t have optimism, I don’t have pessimism,” Smith told USA TODAY Sports. “The reality is, we’re talking, but we’re far apart. … Either the deal is done and you could relax and not prepare for a work stoppage or the deal isn’t done and you can’t relax and you need to prepare for a work stoppage.”

The latter is the characterization used by Don Davis, the NFLPA’s assistant to the executive director/senior director of player affairs. He lays out exactly what a work stoppage looks like, because only six players on the Chiefs’ roster were even in the league in 2011 when business came to a 132-day standstill. In all, fewer than 200 of today’s NFL players experienced the 2011 lockout.

“A lockout means no pay, or insurance,” the former linebacker says before explaining the importance of preparation so the players don’t cave out of desperation.

“The goal is to ensure that we stay ready,” Davis stresses. “Everybody say, ‘Stay ready.’”

In a bass-filled unison, the 57 players repeat the mantra, “Stay ready.”

A decade ago, despite repeated warnings from the NFLPA, many players never believed a work stoppage would actually take place. But it did.

Players were banned from their team headquarters even for medical treatment. Some players, who hadn’t saved adequately, wound up taking out high-interest loans, which in turn only worsened their financial situations in the long run.

Eventually, a deal was reached in time to avoid any lost season time. But many players wondered in retrospect if minimal preparedness on their peers’ parts caused them to make too many concessions in that CBA.

That’s why there’s a focus on better planning and understanding this time around.

The union leaders started preaching about a potential work stoppage earlier in the process. And two years ago, the NFLPA board passed a resolution to withhold gaming royalty checks ($18,000 per player each year) so those funds can be put toward a rainy-day fund players will receive in the event of a lockout. Union dues also have been devoted to the construction of a war chest fund. But those funds don’t even equate to half of the combined salaries players earn annually.

So, Davis stressed to the Chiefs players, “You’ll want to save half of what you earn this year and next.” Pointing to a flowchart, he explained that such measures will ensure each player has a year’s salary to live off of if there’s a lockout in 2021.

These are the same messages conveyed back in 2010 and 2011. But NFLPA leadership has hope that the message will sink in more effectively this time.

“Guys these young guys are playing with went through that 2011 work stoppage, so that helps,” Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt told USA TODAY Sports. “I experienced going from Sigma to Cobra and having multiple kids and a pregnant wife through all of that, so this is an opportunity for us to say, ‘this is what it’s like and it happened to us.’ So, any kind of advice that I, as an older player, can give younger guys about being responsible and saving comes in handy as we’re preaching, ‘Save. Don’t just spend it.”

Stepping to the middle of the room, Smith tells of another billion dollar industry with a work stoppage and labor dispute on its hands.

“There are 50,000 united auto workers on a picket line against General Motors and they want those jobs to come back from Mexico to the United States,” Smith explains. “They want better health care and better compensation and make sure they have a good pension, but those 50,000 people, most of them are making less than $60,000 a year and right now they’re on that picket line, making only $250 a week.”

Smith challenges the players that if workers earning significantly less than them can stand up to improved conditions in their industries, the players – with the same unified mindset and adequate financial preparation – should be able to effectively do so as well.

The analogy  is posed because although the NFL’s players make more than the autoworkers, they all want the same thing.

When it comes to the CBA, NFL players worry most about their working conditions, benefits and fair compensation.

It’s no secret that the owners want to expand the season. The players get that. But there has to be some give and take, they believe.

The questions raised by Chiefs players over the course of the meeting mirror those of their counterparts on other teams, according to Smith.

At each stop, he and his team have listened as players voice concerns over the toll a 17- or 18-game season would take on their bodies. They ask what kind of parameters the league would put in place to help with load management. Is it a reduction of mandatory offseason sessions? Shortening of training camp and/or the preseason? What about the workout bonuses that often are tied to portions of the offseason that should be considered voluntary but actually are optional in word only?

It’s not lost on the players that the revenue likely will continue to soar in the next decade. Currently, players take in somewhere between 47 and 48% of the revenue. (A percentage point equates to roughly $150 million.) Players want to ensure that pie is divided more evenly. They also want to increase both the league minimum and salaries of practice squad players.

Players have asked about the possibility of the league going from the current 17-week pay schedule to a 34-week schedule.

Longer seasons also add up to more wear and tear on a body before a player  can cash in on his prime earning window, so players want to see rookie contracts shortened. They also want to know what franchise player designations would look like in a new CBA.

After the meeting, multiple players, including quarterback Patrick Mahomes, cornered Smith to pick his brain on the finer details of the potential CBA and the climate around the league.

“These meetings are awesome because they’re able to get everyone on the same page, see where we’re going and prepare everybody for whatever outcome,” Mahomes — who , as the son of a former MLB player, endured the strike in 1994 — told USA TODAY Sports.

A short time later, while walking out of the Chiefs’ facility, Smith said, “These meetings remind me about the humanity of what this business is. That’s not to degrade anybody who covers it as a sport, but there is rarely an emphasis on who these people are. They’re somebody’s son, somebody’s husband, someone’s brother, someone’s significant other.

“But that’s the business of football. We’ll talk: You’re a labor union. They’re management. They have an agenda, and so do we.”

In a matter of weeks, as talks resume, Smith will put on his negotiating hat once again until each side finds common ground.

For now, the mantra for Smith and his players remains: “Stay ready.”

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