NFLPA Exec Director DeMaurice Smith

NFL Players Association executive director talks about the league’s protracted labor dispute.

DeMaurice Smith came to the NFL Players Association as a league outsider and one who would bring a fresh approach to his duties. Elected executive director unanimously in '09 by a board of active player reps, he's charged with negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement in turbulent economic times. Smith is a trial lawyer who has represented Fortune 500 companies and worked with U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder. The DC native earned his law degree at the University of Virginia and also teaches at the school's National Trial Advocacy Institute.


Tavis: DeMaurice Smith is the executive director of the NFL players association and the man at the center of the labor storm between the league and its players. He’s a former criminal prosecutor who once worked for then-U.S. attorney Eric Holder. He joins us tonight from Washington. DeMaurice Smith, thank you for your time, sir. Good to have you on this program.

DeMaurice Smith: Tavis, it’s a pleasure. Thank you.

Tavis: Let me start with the obvious. For those who know that obviously this lockout is still under way but have not been following it every day or don’t know where the dispute is at the moment, in your own words, where are we as we speak?

Smith: Well, unfortunately right now the players of the National Football League would much rather be playing football, they’d much rather be working out with their teams, trying to bring a championship back to their respective city. The National Football League owners locked us out in March and that lockout continues today.

But look, our players want to play football, and we’ve always just wanted to play football, so although talks between the sides certainly continue with respect to settlement and mediation, players are working out on their own right now. They hope to be able to play football soon. But that’s all they want right now, is to try to get back on the field.

Tavis: What’s preventing an agreement? (Laughter) What are the issues – I hear you laughing, but what are the issues that caused this divide as we speak?

Smith: Well, the NFL owners opted out of this agreement, and sometimes that gets lost in the shuffle. But we had an agreement that was signed in 2006. The owners opted out of that agreement because they said that the deal wasn’t working for them. The players, they don’t want anything other than a fair deal.

The players of the National Football League didn’t ask for one dollar more. They didn’t ask to end the deal. We already told the owners way back when that we would play under the same terms as 2006.

But I do think that one thing that the players have asked for, and I’m proud of them that they’ve actually demanded, they want a fair deal and they want to know that the equity between players and owners is fair. They want to know that the terms of the agreement are fair. They want to make sure that the economic balance between players who play for about 3.4 years and owners is equitable and fair.

We tried to do that. Unfortunately, we’re in a lockout situation. My hope is that games get played and that we maintain what I consider to be the best sport in America. But that’s what basically led us here, and the owners had an offer on the table back in March that would have required players to pay owners about $450 million back in year one, about $512 million in year two, and in excess of $600 million in year three and so on and so on and so on, and the players of the National Football League did not believe that was fair.

Tavis: Your players, and you, for that matter, have called the NFL owners a “cartel.” Unpack that for me. That’s a strong indictment, calling them a cartel.

Smith: Well, the National Football League – and look, no one will disagree with it. The National Football League works as a monopoly. It is a closed system of who can come in. It’s a closed system of who can own a team. There are things that occur within that monopoly that I have to say have been very, very good for football.

No player in the National Football League wants to see the draft go away, but nonetheless the draft restricts players where they go. That violates the antitrust laws. There are limits on when players can be offered their services in the free market. That restricts free agency.

So any business institution that operates like a monopoly operates like a cartel, and I have to say that for the last 50 years or so the balance between players and owners in that monopolistic system has been about 50-50 shares of all revenue.

What struck the players by the owners’ offer in March was a deal that on the day that that deal was signed that share of all revenue drops to about 45 percent, and then it would continue to drop unabated as shares of revenue grew disproportionately between owners and players.

What we believe is in a fair system and in an equitable deal, and we still believe that that’s right. My hope is that the lockout gets lifted. My hope is that the season goes off without a hitch. That’s what the class of players want and that’s certainly what the group of players are working towards.

Tavis: I know the fans of the NFL had hoped that these issues could be mediated, number one, so why has that not been the case? Why couldn’t it be mediated? Number two, for those – we all have our critics – for those who think that your strategy has been one of being a bit too litigious, your response to that is what?

Smith: We filed a lawsuit against the National Football League because they were going to lock us out, and they did. We filed a case against the NFL owners and ultimately were proven correct when we found out that they gamed the television contracts in a way to pay themselves $4 billion, even though the players wouldn’t play and even though those team cities wouldn’t enjoy the revenue coming from football.

So I really, on behalf of the players, we don’t make many apologies for seeking redress in the courts when someone does something to us, but what gets lost sometimes in the shuffle is that we’ve had over 70 negotiation sessions over two years.

The first letter that I wrote to the league back in May of 2009 was a letter that said let’s get started on collective bargaining, and if the owners have indeed opted out of the deal with a belief that something was wrong, show us. The simple fact is the players of the National Football League have committed over $3 billion – $3 billion – for the last eight stadiums that have gone online. So that’s players making a decision to invest money that would have come to them into the growth of the game.

The simple moral of that is players don’t have any problem contributing to the growth of the game. We just want to make sure that it’s fair and balanced, and when it’s not, and when a proposal that came on the table said that there would have been a massive shift from players to owners, that creates obvious adversity.

And to your question about why it’s not resolved or why it hasn’t been mediated, there isn’t a businessperson out there who wouldn’t say that sometimes you wish that business disputes were over more quickly than they are. The players know one thing – our fans love our game, and this business, this game of football, is one that generated $9 billion in the worst recession of our lives.

So what we have tried to do, what I’ve tried to do as the executive director is enlighten our guys, make sure they’re well-informed. Our players are the people making decisions and I’m proud of them. We will continue to work to make sure that the season occurs, but everybody should know that when I ran into London Fletcher and all the guys working out on behalf of the Redskins last week, all of them said, to a man, they’re waiting to play football.

Tavis: How long can you hold this team, as it were, this team of players together? These guys can only go so long without making money. Nobody’s feeling sorry for these guys; they make more than the average American makes. But at some point they have expenses, too, they have families, too, they have lives, too. How long can you hold this team of players together?

Smith: Our players I think understand. They know where they are. When they make the decision to do something, it’s going to be their decision. If they make the decision to not hold together, it’ll be their decision.

Tavis: At the moment, though, you don’t have any reason to believe that that bond is being broken at the moment?

Smith: No, and if it is, there are 32 player reps, there is an 11-person executive committee, there is a class of named plaintiffs, there’s another group of plaintiffs that comprises every player in the National Football League. It’s their decision.

Tavis: Final question here – over the past few days you’ve raised the names of two former great players, both now deceased, and I want to close by asking what these now-deceased players, namely Reggie White and Dave Duerson, have to do with these very live negotiations and the future of football.

Smith: Well, sometimes – and I know we live in an instant world where everybody likes to become an instant expert about what the issue is and that your issues of today aren’t tied to history – but the guys you mentioned, Reggie White and Dave Duerson, were two men who put their name on a lawsuit back in 1993, because remember, the NFL owners didn’t believe in anything called free agency.

They didn’t think that players should be able to test their wares in the fair market. They didn’t believe that free agency had a place in football. Reggie White, Dave Duerson were leaders who put their name on that lawsuit and decided to fight for a class of players.

Now we come full circle and we are in another fight, and this time around it’s names like Tom Brady and Payton Manning and Drew Breeze and Von Miller. Those are people who have stepped into the breach in the same way that those great players have, and that’s our history.

But our history is also one where I know that a fair deal can be done and I know that two sides can get together and make the right decision on what’s good for our game and what’s great for our fans.

Tavis: He’s the head of the NFL players association, DeMaurice Smith. DeMaurice, I know you got a full schedule, man. Thanks for taking the time to spend some time sharing your insights on this dispute that we all hope is going to get figured out at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Smith: Me too, me too. Thank you, Tavis.

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Last modified: May 26, 2011 at 1:54 pm