DeMaurice F. Smith has headed the Players’ Association since 2009, but he became a national figure during the NFL lockout of 2011. The league and the players union finally agreed on a 10-year contract that kept the country’s favorite sport in business. These days, he’s focused on safety issues that have become the major concern facing football at all levels. Before being named head of the union, Smith was a partner and trial lawyer at Patton Boggs.
FOR SEVERAL MONTHS in 2011, YOU WERE ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS PEOPLE IN THE COUNTRY. DO YOU MISS THE ATTENTION?
No. I mean, look, the great thing about football is it is America’s sport. Obviously, being in the center of the storm for a new contract had its upsides and downsides. I’m much happier when the focus is on our players.
THE WORLD OF PRO SPORTS IS SO SMALL AND MYSTERIOUS DESPITE BEING SO CLOSELY WATCHED. WHAT is it LIKE ON THE INSIDE?
What you learn on the inside is the magnitude of the business. It’s not every day you negotiate a 10-year, $100 billion deal. The scope of that is staggering. And there is a lot at stake for the players. They have extremely short careers. They have to approach the game they love as a business. We talk to them about appreciating the real risks that the business poses and maximizing their returns from that business.
DURING THE LOCKOUT, THE QUESTION PEOPLE ASKED WAS, “WILL THERE BE FOOTBALL TO WATCH ON SUNDAYS?” WERE YOU ABLE TO COMMUNICATE TO THE PUBLIC WHAT WAS AT STAKE?
My concern was making sure that our players understood what was at stake. For our players, the fundamental issue is having a fair relationship with the owners. They want health and safety, fair compensation, and fair benefits after they are done playing. Our job was to make sure that our players were willing to fight for these things. For example, this is the first collective-bargaining agreement that requires teams to actually spend almost their entire salary cap. This ensures maximum compensation for the players and competitive balance among teams.
PLAYER SAFETY HAS BECOME ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT ISSUES IN SPORTS, RIGHT DOWN TO THE PEE WEE LEVEL. CAN FOOTBALL PLAYERS REALLY BE PROTECTED WHEN THE SPORT IS SO VIOLENT?
I think that’s the wrong question. If you are a firefighter, police officer, coal miner, or NFL player, all four of those professions have inherent risks. We don’t ask ourselves whether a firefighter can ever be safe. We ask ourselves how we can make firefighters safer tomorrow than they are today.
So the real issue is not whether football can ever be safe. The critical question is whether the National Football League is trying to make the sport safer. To me, the reason why the referee lockout was such a grotesque and fundamental violation of the league’s obligation is that the league chose, by using replacement referees, to make the workplace less safe. It’s hard to believe, but this is the first collective bargaining agreement that requires that all league medical personnel abide by all federal, state, local, professional, and ethical standards. You have to ask yourself how committed the NFL is to safety above fining players for rules violations.