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NFLPA head Smith urges rookies to examine life beyond football

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- There were multiple ways that DeMaurice Smith could have gone with his speech to the 256 drafted players at the NFL Rookie Symposium.

As the new executive director of the NFL Players Association, Smith could have used his time on stage at the PGA National Resort to give a rallying cry to his audience about negotiations that are under way to extend the collective bargaining agreement with the league beyond the 2010 season. He could have hammered the issue that matters most to players, whether they're wide-eyed rookies or long-time veterans: Money.

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We won't give an inch, he could have told them. Our only mission is to get you more, he could have promised.

Smith did none of that. Instead of rhetoric, he offered perspective on the players' existence beyond football. Using the considerable oratory skills that served him well as a highly successful trial lawyer in Washington, D.C., he covered topics such as "mature thought," quoted from Hamlet, and made references to recent events around the world.

To better understand the present and future, Smith advised the rookies to look in the past. He reminded them that they were sitting in chairs occupied by hundreds upon hundreds of players before them. He reminded them that the NFL was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the American Football League.

And to drive home the point, Smith had members of the NFLPA staff distribute trading cards of former NFL stars to the rookies, urging them to read the biographical information that included flaws ("they're not all perfect, because you're not perfect") as well as successes.

"The fundamental truth of progress is that we only surpass history when we embrace it," Smith said. "Mature thought is a thought where we now understand not only what we do and who we are, but where we are and where we exist in the world.

"If you let people define you as just a player, I guarantee you one thing: You will lose. So who are you? You're fathers, you're sons, you're brothers, you're husbands. Hamlet talked about that famous question: What is it to be? If you remember any part of that soliloquy, the answer to his question was the question itself. It was an understanding of who he was in relation to the world in which he lived. He was a brother, he was father, he was husband, he was a son. That's who you are."

Smith talked about how players, not much older than those in the audience, stepped up to the challenge of being leaders last March when they held an election to choose a successor to the late Gene Upshaw.

"That's what I ask of you today," Smith said. "Make the decision to lead … and that means leading on the field and that means leading off the field."

That includes, Smith said, remaining a "vital participant" in the world. He then discussed how a week ago, French President Nicolas Sarkozy addressed both houses of parliament for the first time in 150 years. "That doesn't seem like that big of a deal," said Smith, "except the last person to do that was Napoleon."

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"You saw students in Iran walk up and down the streets to protest the lack of democracy for the first time in almost 50 years. Why? Because they challenged status quo," Smith said. "Last week you had people who fought on the streets of Iran. Why? Because they wanted to have a vote.

"There are things that we have to battle, and the blessing for us is that our battles, for the most part, will be about the game of football. But each and every day, things are happening in our world that truly inspire change, that inspire progress. And it is our job to grab hold of that and ride that thing because we are participants in what we do in our world.

"And, oh by the way, to quote (rapper) Young Jeezy, 'The last time I looked up, yeah, my president's black.'"

Smith didn't avoid mentioning league finances completely. He did point out that the NFL generated nearly $8 billion in revenue last year and that there are franchises worth in excess of $1 billion. He also mentioned that last April's draft drew a television audience of 40 million, which was larger than the combined TV audiences of the NBA and NHL playoffs.

Still, for all that needs to be resolved at the negotiating table in the days and months ahead, Smith made a point of letting the players know there also is plenty of common ground between the NFLPA and the league.

"There are a number of things that we tend to mix it up about," Smith said. "But when it comes time to be concerned about the men of the National Football League, I know that both myself and (Commissioner) Roger Goodell share the same feeling that we care about one thing: The health, the safety, the welfare of the men who play this sport."

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