Smith will be an integral piece of striking a new deal.
Save for the hulking presence of Philadelphia Eagles' offensive lineman Winston Justice, last night's NFL Players Association One Team Tour event at Philadelphia's Water Works restaurant could have easily been confused with your typical Teamsters' rally.
Flanked by current and former NFL players, members of the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO, and other local labor leaders, NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith made an impassioned plea in support of the players, as negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement with NFL owners - and commissioner Roger Goodell - may soon threaten the start of the 2011 season.
"I don't think either Roger or I are out there to try to send any messages to each other," said Smith. "It's important for both of us to get a deal done as quickly as possible."
One of the goals of last night's event, whether stated or otherwise, was to gain support from fans across the country - many of whom dismiss the negotations as one group of millionaires doing battle against another.
"We're all in this together," said Eagles' cornerback Ellis Hobbs, who is currently recovering from a career-threatening neck injury. "What I want to try to do is to show the fans that what you see on TV is not who we are. We're just like you: we work hard, we play hard, and we just want the type of justice due to us."
In the eyes of the NFLPA, that justice would come in the form of a new collective bargaining agreement that's fair and equitable to both sides. In a sport where the average career is only three and a half years, it is hard to fault the players, who are simply seeking financial security for the impact that the game has on their bodies.
"We want to play games, but we're the ones out there playing, and we just want a fair deal," said Winston Justice, the Eagles' NFLPA player representative. "We want to be out there more than the fans do, but we just want to be treated fairly."
With less than 90 days remaining before the current CBA runs out on March 3, both sides are bracing themselves for the very real possibility of a labor stoppage.
In a one-page letter dated December 1, Smith advised players to save their last three game checks of the 2010 season in preparation for a lockout. "The deadline has now passed," Smith wrote. "It is important that you protect yourself and your family."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello responded to the letter by saying: "It is disappointing and inexplicable, especially for fans... We are ready to meet and negotiate anytime and anywhere... One side can't do it alone."
One of the major points of contention is the owners' desire to expand the regular season to 18 games by reducing the preseason from four games to two. However, with the recent spike in concussions and other serious injuries, the NFLPA is strongly opposed to any changes to the 16-game schedule as it stands now.
"Given our current system, two extra games means a shorter career... exposes us to more injuries," said Smith. "That's not moving forward - right now, that's moving backward."
"I think it's ridiculous," said Hobbs. "Me alone, to go through injuries time after time, day after day, the injury that I just suffered - now you're adding two more games onto the end of that... I really don't see it making sense."
It's been 23 years since the NFL last faced labor discord. Back in 1987, the NFLPA went on strike for 24 days, but nearly 90 players crossed the picket lines, and the union quickly lost any leverage it had against the owners. Now, almost a quarter of a century later, the players' union realizes that they need to stand to together in order to achieve their ultimate goal.
"We're facing a lockout," said Smith. "Our players understand what the stakes are, and I've been brutal with them. If the players lack solidarity, we lose."