SB Nation recently spoke with DeMaurice Smith, the Executive Director of the NFL Player's Association, to discuss the ongoing labor negotiations, how he responds to being "put on notice" by a group of retired players and more.
Smith, a lawyer by trade, has been on the job with the union for a little more than a year. He was elected to the position in March 2009, succeeding the late Gene Upshaw, a former player who served as NFLPA leader for 25 years.
During a 45-minute discussion with SB Nation, Smith was down-to-earth yet very assertive in his mission to represent NFL players in this uncomfortable labor landscape. He understands his case and his opponent. And if there's one thing to take from our conversation with him, it's that he understands fans want one thing: Football.
Along the way to that goal, however, he wants to take fans behind the scenes and help them understand the realities involved in being an NFL player -- both good and bad.
We'll break the interview down by topics, while breaking out and highlighting most of Smith's quotes.
The union's No. 1 issue
Many fans don't understand labor law, nor do they grasp the full plate of issues each side -- the NFL and the NFLPA -- is fighting for. We wanted to nail down the union's ultimate goal. What's the No. 1 issue on which the players association would refuse to budge? "The health, safety and welfare of our players is non-negotiable," Smith said.
To helps fans understand that, Smith said the union plans to expose fans to the NFL that exists on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday -- the days that get the least exposure during the typical NFL week.
One of the things that historically as players we've never really talked about as players is … there's a lot of focus on Thursday, Friday and Sunday. What ramps up to the game and the game itself? What we're going to do this year, very soon, is take fans on Monday and Tuesday after the game. What they don't hear -- and if you spend time with any players families, especially their wives -- you don't hear about players not being able to pick up their kids on Monday. Or players sleeping downstairs on the sofa on Sunday night after a game. Or if they do make it upstairs they can't get downstairs on Monday morning.
He's cognizant of the fact that this is part of the game. Smith doesn't say these things to "denigrate" the game, he said. But, for fans to fully understand the scope of the battle, he feels they must see what happens after the stadium lights shut off.
The damage done
If you're trying to predict what would happen to the NFL if there's a lockout, look no further than the work stoppages in Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. For MLB, their popularity took a major hit and, 16 years later, some fans still have not returned. For the NHL, they're starting to make a comeback. But just a few years ago, folks were wondering if hockey would ever be relevant again.
Enter the NFL. The country's most popular of the four major sports. A marketing machine seemingly making money and creating a buzz at every turn.
With the NFLPA repeatedly warning its players that a lockout is coming, are they aware of what might happen to the game in the event of a work-stoppage, regardless of who's to blame?
We do [recognize the damage done by other work-stoppages]. For us, look, we wouldn't be anywhere without our fans. It is important for me, as the head of the organization, to impress upon our players that the last group of people we could ever take for granted are the people who not only love our game but have really been the backbone of our game. Football has grown because of, I think, that family connection.
The fans are the paying customers, the reason advertisers continue to give billions to the league and the reason former players, such as Len Dawson, can still draw a crowd over 30 years since they last suited up. The NFLPA is smart to recognize the importance of fans.
Millionaires vs. billionaires
At SB Nation, we hear from a lot of fans and the most common response to the labor strife is: It's an argument between millionaires (players) and billionaires (owners). Guys playing a game facing older men signing the checks.
It's important, Smith said, to keep things in perspective. He coaches his son's baseball team. He has every player on the team play every position at some point. His coaching philosophy, like his business philosophy, is making sure everyone understands the different perspectives involved. It's hard to blame the catcher for missing a passed ball if you've never thrown on the equipment and gotten behind the plate.
Smith was quick to point out a few realities from the players perspective regarding the millionaires vs. billionaires argument. As an example, let's say you're a sixth round draft pick in your first game in week one. You've received a relatively small signing bonus and now it's time to play in your first NFL game.
Boom. You blow out your knee. And it could be career-ending.
Most of our fans think if you hurt your hand on the first play of your first game and you don't play another down, that you'll have health care for the rest of your life. That's not true.
Smith likes to use analogies. In this instance, he used one to seemingly separate the divide between the mystique of being a professional athlete and your everyday Joe.
If your son or your daughter came to you and said, 'I have the opportunity to have a job. The upside is that it will pay me pretty well for 3.6 years. The downside is there is a 100 percent injury rate. Every day I could be engaged in this business that would eliminate my career. I don't get health care until I work in this business for more than three years. If I work less than 3 years I get no health care and every injury I have is a pre-existing condition for which I can't get any insurance'. And your son or daughter says to you, 'Should I take the job?'
The idea of being an NFL player loses some of the glitz and glamour when you put it that way. That's because most -- when they dream of being an NFL player -- don't dream about being a sixth round draft pick. They dream about being a first-rounder, with the guaranteed money that comes with it. Those players, however, make up a small percentage of the league.
The average player in the NFL is not a superstar. The average player is in the league for 3.6 years, which means if they take the normal college route the player will be out of the league by age 26 or 27.
What's the likelihood you're going to have a manifestation of a significant injury at 40?
And that's one of Smith's major points regarding the millionaires vs. billionaires. The average player -- 3.6 years in the league -- would have trouble preparing for the above scenario.
Sharing the profits
One of the topics discussed most was an original idea from Smith: The Legacy Fund.
For a little background, understand one of his major points regarding the importance of such a fund: The NFL makes money off of former players.
You walk into stadium in America, there will be a ring of fame or wall of fame for all of those legacy players. So I know individual teams sell legacy. My problem is they don't pay for it. And because no teams pays for that legacy while they're selling it, I think if you're a star running back for your local team and your local team continues to use your name and picture, put it on the wall and basically tells fans to buy tickets for that history, that legacy, that player. You don't pay that player anything.
So I've said every team should make a contribution of at least a million dollars a year for a total of $32 million a year for what I would call the legacy fund. That legacy fund should go to all the players pensions who played prior to 1993 and that would increase all their pensions by, get this, $1,000 per month.
Smith cited numbers from Forbes that estimates profits from each NFL owner at an average of $31 million.
But, Smith, who said he's written letters to the league about the idea and also pitched it to Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), told SB Nation that the NFL has outright rejected his Legacy Fund idea, telling him "No, just no."
Retired players putting the NFLPA 'on notice'
At the end of May, a retired players group led by Hall of Famers Joe DeLamielleure and Elvin Bethea held a press conference in Dallas not far from the site of the NFL owners meetings. The group had taken exception to Smith's claim that the riff with retired players was over.
"Today, we put the NFL Players Association on notice," said former Buffalo defensive back Jeff Nixon. The former players warned that if Smith assumes there isn't a divide, owners will exploit the differences in labor negotiations.
The union declined comment at the time. But when SB Nation spoke with Smith, he spoke openly the vocal group of retired players. He said there are approximately 8,000 members in the group of former players he's associated with and, when it comes to retired players, he's getting a different story.
Smith said he speaks at "10 to 15" retired player chapter meetings each year -- meeting with players like Art Monk, Cornelius Bennett, among others -- and doesn't hear the same complaints the group in Dallas identified.
This past year alone, for the first time, our current players' executive committee is going to have former players on that committee. That was a vote by the current players. For the first time in history, we combined our retired players meeting with our current players meeting. I've made a switch in the law firm that traditionally represented us that retired players had a number of concerns about. We've made changes in the composition of the pension board.
Add the Legacy Fund in there as well.
The NFL Alumni has a new leader named George Martin and we've asked him to support this Legacy Fund idea. And he hasn't. Why would a guy who supposedly has a job to support former players not endorse for the first time funds coming from teams for his former teammates? Our retired players group has asked the league to turn over their audited financials because if we know truly what their profit numbers are maybe we could come to the conclusions as to whether teams can't pay for pensions or whether they don't want to. But the NFL Alumni has refused to endorse a call for more transparency. Why would you do that?
Smith said he's had no communication with Martin and the NFL Alumni regarding a letter he sent to them over a year ago requesting support for not only the Legacy Fund but to request that the NFL demonstrate "greater transparency" when it comes to their finances. Martin has not responded to the letter and there's been no communication about it since, Smith said.
Smith insisted that, overall, he has a good relationship with retired players. He's taken the steps to transform the two distinct groups -- current players and retired players -- and turn them into one group -- players. So while it sounded like he was calling out the group of retired players in Dallas:
Well, you know, you've got a group of people in Dallas who want to put the NFLPA on notice? Well, when are they going to get around to putting their former employer on notice? When are they going to ask for the level of transparency that every major financial institution has to live with but the NFL does not?
I feel he understands the importance the power that being united brings.