IT DIDN'T take the NFL Players Association's new boss, DeMaurice Smith, long to get the undivided attention of the league's owners.

During his pre-election presentation to players last week, and again in his first post-election news conference, Smith brought up the possibility of asking

Congress to examine the league's tax-exempt status and its limited antitrust exemption if the owners don't bargain in good faith in upcoming negotiations for a new labor deal.

Paging Arlen Specter . . . Paging Arlen Specter.

The owners are smart enough to know this was no idle threat. Smith is a partner in the powerful Washington law firm Patton Boggs and has ties to the Obama administration. He once worked with new U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

But many of them question the wisdom of such tough talk before Smith even had a chance to introduce himself to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

"I'm not sure that's the right tone you want to set going into the negotiations," said one league executive. "At some point, you take out the big guns. But usually, at first, it's, 'Congratulations, let's go out to dinner and get to know you.' ''

The owners spent the past week trying to familiarize themselves with Smith, who was a surprise winner in the union election. Most expected one of the two former players on the ballot - Troy Vincent and Trace Armstrong - to succeed the late Gene Upshaw.

But Smith was elected on the first ballot. The owners will be briefed on Smith and the status of the upcoming labor negotiations at the league meetings, which get under way Monday in southern California.

His references to congressional intervention aside, most NFL executives think Smith was a good choice.

"Right now, they need the kind of strong leadership they had with Gene, and it sounds like this guy gives them that," said another league executive. "My experience in negotiating is it's better to have somebody solid on the other side that people can trust and are willing to follow. I'd rather negotiate with an agent who is sharp and who I know the player trusts than one of these guys who goes back and forth and can't necessarily convince his player that it's the right thing."

One thing the league is curious to see is how the selection of Smith affects the role of union attorney Jeffrey Kessler.

Kessler, a partner in the

New York law firm Dewey &

LeBoeuf, is the union's chief outside counsel and had become a key adviser to Upshaw in recent years. Kessler is viewed by the league as a hawk who lives for confrontation and is difficult to deal with at the bargaining table.

"My opinion is that if Kessler is involved [in the labor negotiations] in any meaningful way, it's not good for anybody," an NFC club owner told the Daily News. "I don't think it's good for the players either.

"Kessler is a very, very forceful presence. Even very, very strong people are influenced by forceful presences. So, I think Jeff will either be completely out of the picture in the new regime or he'll matter. Needless to say, we're hoping for the former rather than the latter."

The current labor deal, which the owners opted out of last spring, doesn't expire until after the 2010 season. But if there is no new deal by next March, there will be no salary cap in 2010. And Smith already has echoed Upshaw in saying that the union never will agree to reinstitute a salary cap once it goes away.

Most of the league's owners want a salary cap, but not under the current terms of the CBA, which gives 60 percent of the league's total football revenue to the players.

"That 60 percent number was the magic number for Gene," said former Kansas City Chiefs president Carl Peterson. "He said it had to start with a '6.' The problem was, in the last agreement, the owners not only agreed to the percentage, but also acquiesced on making it 60 percent of the total football revenues instead of 60 percent of designated gross revenues. Which really got into the owners' pockets with suites and concessions and parking and all that.

"The players have to understand that the owners are trying to run an ongoing business that does have overhead, that does necessitate a lot of work and effort by people. Building new stadiums and renovating stadiums, that costs money."

The owners' main gripe is that, while those new and renovated stadiums are providing the players with additional revenue, the union won't give teams salary-cap credit for their expenses, including stadium debt.

"We're building new stadiums, which is helping push up the league's revenues and therefore the cap," the NFC owner said. "So the players are getting a sizable share of it. There's got to be a point here where you could have a reasonable percentage [of the revenue going to the players], but get some [salary cap] credit for expenses like stadium construction that directly result in increased revenue to the players." *

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