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Stephen A. Smith swings at De Smith, misses


The chronically bombastic (and often, when it relates to the NFL, misinformed) Stephen A. Smith is always good for a hot take delivered in flaming fashion. On Wednesday, Stephen A. Smith fired shots in machine-gun fashion at NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith regarding the lingering phenomenon known as #Deflategate.

Along the way, Stephen A. gets himself worked up into a cartoonish frenzy.

“It’s not just his job to be in court all the damn time,” Stephen A. said on First Take. “It’s his job to ingratiate himself with the Commissioner and the National Football League in a fashion that speaks to a relationship that’s taking place so the coffers, the financial coffers, of the players is not being compromised.”

Stephen A. is right on the first part; it’s not DeMaurice Smith’s job to be in court “all the damn time.” But it is his job to be in court whenever necessary to advance the interests of the players. And that’s what DeMaurice Smith has done, successfully for the most part.

In Brady’s case, it was the NFL not the NFLPA that ran to court. And it was the NFL not the NFLPA that prolonged the case after the ruling from the judge who presided over the lawsuit the NFL filed.

As to the second part of that initial comment, Stephen A. couldn’t be more wrong. Since Roger Goodell became the Commissioner, the NFL in many of its relationships has ditched symbiosis for suffocation, constantly pushing for more and more and more and forcing supposed partners to scramble for battle stations. The NFL, miffed at a CBA negotiated by Paul Tabliabue that was deemed to be too favorable to the players, was determined to swing the pendulum sharply in the other direction in 2011. In that respect and all others, the NFL has tried to have its way in nearly every way possible with the union.

But not in all ways. DeMaurice Smith inherited an internal system of justice that was stacked against the players. He has since managed to shift appeals under the PED policy and the substance-abuse policy to neutral arbitration. As to the remaining areas that fall exclusively under Goodell’s authority (i.e., Personal Conduct Policy violations and discipline for conduct detrimental to the game), the NFLPA’s only tool for ensuring fair processes and outcomes is litigation.

For the most part, it has worked. But, obviously, it’s not cheap.

“Tom Brady and Deflategate, from my understanding, has cost the Players Association millions,” Stephen A. declared. “I have a problem with that. I have a problem with the issue of deflated footballs regressing to a point where it’s taking millions of dollars out of the coffers of players. That’s my issue.”

If that’s his issue, Stephen A. should take it up with the league office. They’re the ones who pulled the pin on the still-exploding grenade by ignoring science, presuming guilt, and engineering the evidence in a way to confirm a predetermined outcome.

So what should DeMaurice Smith have done, Stephen A.?

“I think that it’s something that DeMaurice Smith could have worked to alleviate in a better fashion -- not saying completely or whatever,” Stephen A. said, temporarily replacing yelling with rambling. “But I think he could have worked out better if he had done a portion -- I’m not saying he doesn’t do his job, because he’s obviously exceptional in some areas -- but as it pertains to cultivating the kind of relationship where you’re not costing the players you represent so much money, I think he could do a better job with that. That is my lone issue with DeMaurice Smith. That he, to me, turns everything into a legal issue because that is where he is comfortable, that is where his bread is buttered. But unfortunately it is at the expense of a bevy of players whose names are not Tom Brady.”

Frankly, there’s nothing DeMaurice Smith could have done other than fight, because the NFL isn’t going to compromise on this or any issue of discipline that falls ultimately within Goodell’s purview. There’s no sweet-talking to be done; the NFL takes the Veruca Salt approach to most negotiations. The options are to give the league what the league wants, or find an external authority to tell the league it can’t have it.

Stephen A. is either unwilling or unable to see that.

“My God, it’s over!” Stephen A. screamed. “Sixteen months! You’re costing the players -- I am up here on national TV going off about this not because of the competence of DeMaurice Smith, which is not to be questioned. Not because of his intent, I understand that the man is an honorable man. I am not trying to disrespect him. I am saying you are compromising in my opinion the interests of the players by going all out with Tom Brady on this when Tom Brady already has his lawyers and Tom Brady already has his money and there’s a whole bunch of dudes that can’t afford the kind of defense that Tom Brady can afford. That’s my problem.”

Here’s my problem with that argument. First, the money that pays for lawyers isn’t coming out of the pockets of the players. It’s coming from the pool of money created by the dues paid by members of the union and other methods of generating revenue. Second, the money spent helping Tom Brady helps all other players by, if successful, limiting Goodell’s power and, in turn, making it easier to eventually persuade Goodell to delegate his remaining final-say authority to neutral arbitration.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Brady went with his own counsel during the investigation -- and promptly screwed up the case by refusing to make his cell phone or its contents available to Ted Wells. The NFLPA, given its history of tussling with the league when required, knows not only how to duke it out but also how to engineer a case to make it easier to win, or as the case may be harder to lose.

Brady, for example, would have gotten much more stern and candid (and authoritative) advice from Jeffrey Kessler than Brady got from Don Yee, who has a long history of letting Brady do whatever he wants to do. Without that advice, the NFL wouldn’t have been able to trump up the case after the fact with the notion that Brady “destroyed” his cell phone -- a dynamic that was first leaked by someone in the league office to Stephen A. Smith.

NFLPA spokesman George Atallah apparently believes that the leak came from NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent.

“Sorry [De] missed the segment,” Atallah said to Stephen A. Smith on Twiter, “he was in court. Say hello to your boy Troy Vincent though. Hope to see you in Bristol soon.”

Coincidentally (or not), Vincent previously has criticized the union with similar language: “Look at the amount of money being spent on legal fees for a handful of people. It’s millions and millions of dollars, and we’ve got players that are hurting. We’ve got young men who don’t know how to identify a good financial advisor. Men are in transition who aren’t doing well, and yet $8-10 million a year is spent in court fees about who should make a decision on someone, who in some cases has committed a crime.”

Here’s the reality. With a truly fair and neutral system of arbitration, both sides would be spending far less money on lawyers because the losing party would believe in every case that justice was done. In too many of the cases handled by Goodell, the NFLPA believes that justice hasn’t been done, which forces the NFLPA to seek justice elsewhere.

Justice may be blind but, again, it’s not cheap. In pro football’s ongoing battle of labor relations, a cost of doing business for both sides. Still, the league is once again trying to use the expenses as a wedge among the players, with Stephen A. Smith currently becoming the conduit for making in June of 2016 the same argument that Vincent made in June of 2015.