DeMaurice Smith's ties to presidential power and business experts trumped football experience, leading the Washington-based attorney to become the NFL Players Association's new executive director.
The 45-year-old Smith was chosen Sunday over two former union presidents and a high-profile sports attorney. He succeeds the late Gene Upshaw and guides the players into a critical era that includes negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement in the shadow of an economic meltdown.
"Guys, let's get to work," Smith told the membership that had been marred by internal squabbles during the long and sometimes chaotic selection process.
Smith was elected on the first ballot by the 32 representatives -- one for each NFL team -- and was introduced to a standing ovation.
"I think it'll be the start of a very good time for the union," Rams offensive lineman Adam Goldberg said.
Smith becomes the fourth leader in the union's 41-year history. He has the opportunity to chart a new direction for a union that proved both successful and divisive -- particularly involving the needs of retired players -- under Upshaw, who died in August after a 25-year tenure.
"The men here today made a decision to be unified to take a strong step forward to build upon the leadership of Mr. Upshaw and stand together as a family," Smith said.
Many players said they were sold on Smith's no-nonsense style of leadership, ability to unite, and enthusiasm to move the union forward. It turns out his lack of NFL experience actually worked in Smith's favor.
"We're behind our new leader and we're ready to forge forward with a united front," Goldberg said. "We believe Mr. Smith is our best option of leading us into the future, and we're proud to be a part of it."
Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten called Smith an "outstanding leader."
"He's confident, he's very straightforward with what his goals are, and what he wants to do," Witten said. "He showed what he wants to do to make us the best we can be."
Smith declined to discuss his immediate plans or whether he'll retain the union's legal team for the collective bargaining talks in a brief interview after the vote. He kept pointing to the solidarity of the vote.
"The men in this room came into this with tough choices and they emerged unanimous and unified," he said.
Smith was elected by a vote behind closed doors at the posh Fairmont Kea Lani resort on the island of Maui where the union has been meeting. The player reps heard from the four candidates Saturday and once again Sunday, with the finalists providing their closing arguments before the voting began by secret ballot collected in a Reebok shoe box.
The reps emerged with their selection 90 minutes later.
Smith has no labor law or NFL experience, but has ties to President Barack Obama and worked with new U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. He's a trial lawyer and partner at the influential Washington-based Patton Boggs, and chair of the firm's government investigations and white collar practice group. He has represented Fortune 500 companies in numerous cases. A native of Washington, Smith earned his law degree at Virginia in 1989, and has been a frequent guest commentator on many cable television news programs.
Despite his lack of familiarity to NFL players, he beat out three strong contenders: former NFLPA presidents Troy Vincent and Trace Armstrong, and sports attorney David Cornwell, who re-emerged as a candidate after receiving the necessary written support of three player reps.
Cornwell endorsed Smith following the vote.
"I am proud of the player representatives and the executive committee," Cornwell said in an e-mail sent to The Associated Press. "They handled a very difficult process with class, determination and view toward the best interests of all NFL players. Congratulations to DeMaurice Smith. He deserves all of our support. He will certainly have mine."
Cornwell previously called the sometimes politicized and often divisive seven-month search process as "corrosive."
Vincent was particularly the target of numerous attacks -- many of them anonymous -- questioning his character and business background.
According to a biography released by Smith's assistant, the lawyer presented the union with a comprehensive plan, assembling roughly a dozen advisers -- Wall Street financiers, labor lawyers and sports licensing experts -- in making his presentation to players. His goals include increasing health care and opportunities for former and current players, and he believes "the union has both a moral and business obligation to retired players."
Goldberg was impressed by Smith's ability to get across his message.
"He has a very, very infectious energy about him. When he's excited about something, everybody in the room is excited," Goldberg said. "He's going to be a great leader for us. I'm proud to be a part of it. I can't wait to facilitate our agenda with him for the rest of our term."
In a statement, the NFL said: "We congratulate DeMaurice Smith and look forward to working with him and the NFLPA board to ensure the continued health and growth of our game."
Now comes the hard part for Smith, who is challenged with establishing an immediate plan to secure the union's future.
In the coming months, the new director will enter talks with the NFL after owners opted out of the current collective bargaining agreement last year. If a new deal is not struck within two years, there is a chance for a work stoppage affecting the 2011 season, threatening the NFL's long history of labor peace, which has allowed it to flourish for much of the past two decades.
Compounding the importance of the negotiations is an economic meltdown that could damage the NFL's revenue-generating ability and entrench owners to hold their ground in seeking givebacks from players. Owners argue that the current agreement is too favorable for players, who get about 60 percent of applicable revenues.
The NFLPA has countered, citing a union-commissioned study that showed the average value of the teams has grown from $288 million to $1.04 billion over 10 years, an increase of about 14 percent a year.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has already raised the possibility of a rookie salary cap, a move that would significantly pare the multi-million-dollar deals going to unproven first-round draft picks.
Another unresolved issue is the rift that's grown between the union and its retired players, some of whom feel disenfranchised. A host of former stars, including Pro Football Hall of Fame members Mike Ditka, Herb Adderley and Joe DeLamielleure, have been increasingly critical of the union over its health benefits and pension plan, which pays some retired players only hundreds of dollars a month.
NFLPA president Kevin Mawae, the center for the Tennessee Titans, called the vote a "legacy decision for the organization to move forward."
Any past problems, he said, "it doesn't matter now."
The vote was tabulated and verified by accounting firm KMH LLP of Honolulu.