In 2009 the players of the National Football League elected DeMaurice Smith as the executive director of the NFLPA. That choice was met with mixed responses both inside and outside the football world; however, this past Sunday, the players reaffirmed their choice with the re-election of Smith. Under his leadership, the players weathered the Lockout, negotiated a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, added one billion dollars in benefits to former players and made advances in matters of health and safety.
In an exclusive interview, Pro Player Insider Melissa Mahler, spoke with Smith about the current role of the NFLPA, player discipline related to the Saints bounty issue and the recent salary cap penalties.
PPI: You’re wrapping up a series of meetings with the current and former NFL players and were re-elected as the Executive Director of the NFL Players Association. What are your thoughts as you move forward into this next term?
DS: Well, obviously, we’re out of a war mode and what we are trying to do as a union is to refocus our efforts on how our players maximize the amount of time that we know that we have a contract with the National Football League. The message overwhelmingly to players was that really, the only thing that labor peace means is that we have a contract, they have jobs, and that games will continue. Does it mean that we see eye-to-eye with the National Football League on everything? No. Does it mean that there are critical issues that we need to decide between us as players and owners? Yes, there are some serious issues that we need to confront.
We’re going to take an approach, and we’re going to ask the National Football League to take [the same] approach, of dealing with our members as persons first, players second. That means that we have not thought, at all, about backing away from our belief that players health and safety is issue one. Anything that we can do to lengthen their careers, decrease the amount of injuries, improve their lives after the game is over, that is our focus. We will continue to be aggressive [in] ensuring our members health and safety and that will be one of the primary focuses as we go forward into the next ten years.
PPI: Focusing on players as people first, is that one of the reasons that for the last two years, you’ve held the current and former player meetings together?
DS: It is a great thing for us to have both of those meetings be together. The joint sessions between current players and former players are probably the best teaching moments that we have, that I have as the executive director. It’s very easy for me to stand up in front of a team in a locker room and talk to them about the importance of filing their workers comp, the importance of making good decisions about their own health and safety, but its something quite different for them to hear it from players five years removed from the game, fifteen years removed from the game, or even 30 years removed from the game.
The other thing that the former players give us is a sense of history. They understand that we as a union progress in very measured, careful steps. But those steps are significant. For issues like eliminating two-a-day practices, our former players were able to talk to our current guys and really explain to them about just how important it is to be able to walk away from the game as opposed to limping away from the game.
PPI: An issue that’s been on the forefront of the media and obviously has been talked about here with the players is the Saints bounty issue. Commissioner Goodell said this week that he expects to meet with you soon to determine the sanctions or discipline for the players. What are your thoughts about that?
DS: Obviously, the first word that popped out to me was the word “determine.” I’d much rather that be the word “discuss.” As of yet, they haven’t turned over anything that we would consider to be direct evidence of player involvement in a “pay to injure” scheme that we could consider for discipline. It’s very hard to have a productive discussion about punishment when one side has kept, to itself, all the information.
What I would expect is to have a conversation soon and certainly it would be our expectation that the request for all information, as it relates to particular players, will be provided before any discipline takes place.
It’s a very, at least from our perspective, a very unfair situation where you have a number of allegations floating back and forth in the press. There certainly appears to be some information that’s been provided to the media about certain individuals’ involvement and references to everything from e-mails to Powerpoints. It’s difficult for those players to be in a situation where they can hardly defend themselves from unsubstantiated accusations that are being made in the public.
If there is direct evidence of a “pay to injure” scheme implicating players or anybody involved, we are asking the league to turn over that information.
If the evidence demonstrates that the players or anybody else was involved in misconduct, then we’ve been as a union zero sum when it comes to the issues of health and safety for our players and that’s where we’re going to remain.
PPI: From the beginning you’ve tried to reach out to interview and speak with people and seek additional assistance from the league in understanding and gathering facts. Do you expect this to go better, or how are you going to facilitate the cooperation that you need?
DS: Well, it seems to me that the league itself is the one who, as well as the players, benefits from full disclosure. We have an unfortunate circumstance now where someone from the National Football League, or at least an affiliate of the National Football League, accused another player of providing information, or being the so-called “whistleblower.” There are accusations flying back and forth about who provided the information, and who didn’t provide the information.
Whether it comes down to Roger or myself, I don’t think either of us would prefer to have a disciplinary system that is being played out in public with people relying on less than full information. That does nothing to benefit the integrity of the men who play the game. It certainly does nothing to champion the disciplinary system. It does call into question issues of fairness and what’s appropriate. And it is at the end, I think, tremendously unfair for any of those people who find themselves either accused of something or rumored to have done something, or told that they’ve done something and been punished.
We’ve certainly seen some punishments come down. Again, I’m not involved in any of the coaches certainly, or management, but I don’t think that any system is fair if someone is punished or there’s been a determination to punish them where that person is sitting in the dark about what the allegations are and what the evidence is. That’s not how we do things in our country, and I’m certainly sure that even the folks at the National Football League would agree to that.
PPI: Players have been pretty public on various points on this whole issue, and have taken different sides and different approaches to it. What are some of the things that you’ve been hearing?
DS: Our players are extremely vocal. The ability and the access to mass media has made everyone’s opinion instantly distributed to thousands, if not millions of people. Without making a comment on one person’s views versus another person’s views, I think the real problem is all of this is occurring in a vacuum. And because of that vacuum, it actually accelerates the speculation and the mystery and the half-truths and the falsehoods, because no one has been able to come out and say what is definitively true and what is not.
People may not ultimately agree on the outcome, but they should be able to agree on the fairness of the process. I think a tremendous amount of the frustration that comes from the players is when they believe that the process has not been fair. It does seem to me that a simple process where players understand what the specific allegations are and what the proof of those allegations are, and then given a fair chance to address those allegations, is the basis for a fair process that we can all buy into.
PPI: The other issue that’s been discussed lately is the salary cap penalty for the Redskins and the Cowboys. Do you have any comments on that?
DS: The league and the players were engaged in a number of conversations over the past few months about the smoothing of the cap as well as the league bringing to us their intentions or better stated, what they wanted to do with respect to what they considered to be violations of their agreement in the uncapped year. I know that it’s been reported that there could be litigation connected to either one of those instances. The fact is this, both myself and the Executive Committee only make decisions that are in the best interest of all the National Football League players. We always consider our strategic options.
On the day the lockout ended Smith said, “As we go forward our job is to never be satisfied, to continue to be restless about what we want to achieve on behalf of players, to fight when the time is right to fight, and to agree when the time is right to agree.” So while the war is over, resolving peacetime issues will be Smith’s challenge in his second term.