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Published: Sunday, 7/17/2011

NFL players' Smith tops dean's list

It turns out the NFL's players had a mighty big card hiding in the hole, a weapon so secret that the vast majority of NFL Players Association members didn't even know of its existence.

Neither did the league's owners, but since they were enlightened last Thursday morning negotiations toward a new collective bargaining agreement have proceeded at warp speed.

It appears the league and its players will be back in business by this time next week and that the 2011 season will be saved, give or take a handful of exhibition games.

If so, most of the credit should go to DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA executive director since March, 2009, and someone who came across as something of a lightweight when this labor battle began. How wrong that assessment turned out to be. He's looking more like the heavyweight champion.

More than a year ago, Smith approached his executive committee of player representatives for approval to procure an insurance policy at a cost of about $10 million. He got the OK and very quietly arranged for lockout insurance that would pay each player $200,000 in the event the 2011 season was lost in its entirety.

Talks were at a standstill despite a marathon negotiating session last Wednesday. Afterward, Smith and his executive committee decided it was time to flip over their hole card in this high-stakes poker game. According to SI.com, which broke the story, Baltimore cornerback Domonique Foxworth did the honors when the sides returned to the table Thursday.

It would be an understatement to suggest his announcement got the owners' attention.

The owners have muddied the negotiating waters in a variety of ways, but their one obvious strategy has always been to wear the players down by dragging this out. They figured the players' resolve would weaken and splinter when the normal start of training camps rolled around later this month with no paychecks.

The lockout insurance -- plus the prospect of the NFLPA getting a healthy financial reward from a U.S. district judge who has ruled the owners illegally created their own lockout war chest of more than $4 billion by renegotiating TV deals without player compensation -- changed the owners' strategy and timeline.

Since Thursday morning, the sides have agreed to salary cap figures, minimum percentages of revenue that each franchise must use for player payroll, a rookie salary system, and free agency issues. They went into the weekend cleaning up noneconomic issues such as off-season workout and in-season practice policies designed to bolster player health and safety.

The sides will meet with the federal magistrate overseeing negotiations early this week and the owners have already scheduled a meeting in Atlanta on Thursday at which time they could approve a new labor agreement.

Presuming the player reps also sign off on the deal -- post-contract analysis should show they pretty much protected their financial turf -- the process of signing draft picks and free agents will be accelerated. It's possible, albeit not probable, that camps would open on time and the preseason schedule would be unaffected.

Regardless, the season would be saved, no small deal considering how far apart the sides were last Wednesday.

To some millionaire athletes, $200,000 might be chump change. But it would pay the light bill and put groceries on the table. Most importantly, it would foster the solidarity needed by the players to dig in for the long haul.

The owners and commissioner, Roger Goodell, who has been battered in the court of public opinion, thought time was on their side. But DeMaurice Smith flexed his muscle, showed his ace in the hole, and the owners blinked.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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