Smith, union leadership at contract odds

Updated: April 21, 2009, 6:38 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Nearly six weeks after he was elected as Gene Upshaw's successor, new NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith is without a contract. And based on an NFLPA executive committee memo from last week, the two sides remain far apart on several components of a potential deal.

The memo, from labor attorney Stephen M. Saxon to members of the union's executive committee, was obtained by ESPN. Dated April 16, it includes details and a synopsis of a recent executive committee conference call, during which Smith's proposal for a five-year contract was "the major topic of discussion" and was "discussed ... at length" by the 11-man committee.

A member of the executive committee confirmed the existence of the memo and its contents.

While "no final decisions were made" between Smith's proposal and the package proposed by the executive committee, it is clear that major differences exist in the current stances of the two sides.

Primary among the several areas of disagreement is salary. Smith's proposal calls for an annual income of between $3.2 million and $3.7 million for the first three years of the contract, including a $500,000 signing bonus. The executive committee has proposed that Smith not be paid a signing bonus, and that his salary range for the first three years of the contract be between $1 million and $2 million annually.

Assuming the highest-level salaries for each side's proposal, the difference is $5.6 million.

Upshaw, who died from pancreatic cancer last August, earned $6.7 million during the fiscal year that ended Feb. 28, 2007, but that included a one-time bonus of $2.4 million for licensing fees. His actual salary from the NFLPA was $4.3 million.

During the executive committee's conference call, current NFLPA president Kevin Mawae discussed a salary range of $1.5 million to $2 million annually for the first three years of the contract. According to the memo, "some committee members" preferred that Smith's total salary be capped at $4.5 million for the first three years with "the idea being that the initial salary should be relatively low with a commitment to future increases once Mr. Smith proves himself."

Other committee members wanted to review the ranges of the executive directors from other major sports unions. Mawae has been charged with collecting that information, which will be shared with committee members once available.

Committee members have confirmed that, during the respective presentations by the four executive director candidates, salary range was discussed.

"Because this is an internal negotiation, I can't really comment about specifics, but [Smith] isn't asking for anything unreasonable," a source close to Smith, who is familiar with most of his thinking about the contract, said late Tuesday. The source also confirmed that Smith is currently without a contract.

While salary is the most significant sticking point, there are other major differences between Smith's proposal and that of the executive committee. Smith, for instance, is asking for a five-year contract, while the committee has recommended three years. The committee has proposed a performance bonus " ... based on [the] fulfillment of NFLPA and NFL Players duties, including CBA negotiations, [and] paid solely at the discretion of the executive committee." Smith's bonus proposal is for 5 percent of the increases in royalty and sponsorship revenues.

Other areas of dispute include: salary deferrals, athletic club memberships, life insurance, reimbursement of legal fees, and remuneration for speaking engagements.

Committee members were "comfortable with" the attorneys working on the legal aspects of the contract, but Mawae suggested reaching out directly to Smith. Such a move would enable the committee to provide Smith "a clear explanation of what the executive committee's expectations are. ... "

The election of Smith and consummation of a contract with him comes at a critical time for the NFLPA. So, the longer the contract impasse goes, the longer the NFLPA is without a nominal leader.

The league's owners last May opted out of their most recent extension of the labor agreement with the players, negotiated in 2006. Absent another extension of the CBA, originally negotiated in 1993, the NFL faces a season without a salary cap in 2010 and the possibility of a lockout in 2011.

Smith, from the Washington-based law firm Patton Boggs, was elected to a three-year term as NFLPA executive director on March 15 during the union's annual meeting in Maui. In the balloting, Smith defeated three other candidates, including former NFLPA presidents Troy Vincent and Trace Armstrong.

Upshaw, 63 at the time of his death, had been NFLPA executive director since 1983.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.