There is no form of entertainment in this country more popular than football, and there is no one, save Barack Obama, being scrutinized more closely these days than DeMaurice Smith. Smith heads the National Football League's Players Association—a union that’s being threatened with being locked out unless players give back substantial amounts in wages and agree to lengthen the season to eighteen games.
NFL players make large sums of money but risk a lifetime of physical debilitation and the average career lasts only three and a half years. Owners are banking on the fact that players, with their short window to make their money, will cave to every demand. Smith is banking on something bigger: a sense of history, sacrifice and community that's greater than sports.
I spoke with Smith last Friday, the day after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell walked away from the table during negotiations. I asked Smith, on a scale of one to ten, whether he felt there would be a lockout. “On a scale of one to ten, it's still fourteen," he said. "We’re preparing our guys for the worst, we’re hoping for the best. I’m going to keep negotiating. We’ve got our guys on standby right now to be virtually anywhere in the country whenever they want to talk. That’s the way we’re going to roll. I’ve told them that we’re going to negotiate day and night until we get it done, but it takes two.”
Smith is negotiating with—or trying to negotiate with—some of the most powerful, politically connected corporate actors in the United States. Their reach truly inspires awe. When the NFLPA produced a television ad in an effort to garner fan support, the networks first agreed and then refused to air it, presumably after pressure exerted by the league. DeMaurice Smith deemed the censorship “stunning.”
You might think, faced with such power, this would make him pessimistic about the prospects for players, but Smith finds himself inspired by events far removed from the world of football.
“You know,” he said, “we watched things unfold in a far-off country where a lot of the discussion preceding the protests was purely social media, people connecting. We have an ability to get our ‘let us play’ ad out. We know that anybody listening can type in ‘let us play’ and that ad will pop up and, frankly, if networks want to make a decision to boycott us, keep us off, those are the kind of things that get me fired up and let me know that I’m on the right side of right.”
The events in Egypt clearly put wind in Smith’s sails. And why not? After all, Roger Goodell seems much less intimidating when compared to Hosni Mubarak. As Smith said, “There are some socially and politically significant things occurring in the world that don’t have anything to do with the final score. So the other day I was with [Baltimore Ravens player] Dominique Foxworth, and he says, ‘I’ve just been glued to what’s been going on in Egypt and the way in which ordinary people are taking a stand against what they feel is oppression.’ And let’s get it clear, those folks are risking everything to take ownership of what their lives are going to look like. This is also Black History Month. That’s the time to remember and reflect that people across the generations have historically taken stands and been willing to risk everything for causes that they deem are important. The Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence knew that if they lost, they had signed their own death warrants with their names on that document. Well, that’s the spirit of our country and I dig it. And no, I don’t want to equate what [the NFLPA] is doing on that scale, but what I’ve asked our players to do is to recognize their place in history in this fight for a new collective bargaining agreement…. You have to realize that there is a solid line between players like Jack Youngblood, Deacon Jones, Boomer Esiason, Reggie White, Freeman McNeil on to players today like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Brian Dawkins and those who are leaders in this fight.”
There is a social movement unionism aspect to how Smith is running this negotiation that stands apart from any sports labor conflict we’ve seen since the days of Curt Flood. The NFLPA had taken part in a press conference the previous day with the organization American Rights at Work and low-wage stadium workers in Detroit who would find themselves locked out if there are no games this fall. I asked Smith if this was aimed at placing pressure on Goodell and the owners by pointing out the thousands of workers who would be hurt by a lockout.
“I don’t know if it places pressure on him or not, whether it places pressure on the owners or not, and frankly, I don’t care. This is what we do. The business of football means that there’s over 150 thousand people who work in [businesses connected to game day during the season.] Whether it is car services, food services, trash removal, the moving of people to and from the game, the money in the bars and the restaurants, the hotels… this is the business of our business. So if you draw a circle around football it’s a $9 billion entity inside the circle. When you draw the concentric circle outside of football it’s got to be in the $20 to $30 billion range. So to say that we can live, work and operate in a world where we can intellectually or morally divorce ourselves from everything that’s going on outside of our circle, you can’t, you simply can’t.”
Smith’s pleasure reading of choice these days is also interesting: Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, by Taylor Branch. Branch’s book focuses on the small, unsung struggles that made up the fabric of the civil rights movement. I heard Branch’s brilliant text in Smith's closing comments to me, a plea to owners who might be less rapacious than Goodell and the hardliners who are itching for a fight. “I just continue to believe, whether it’s the arc of history or the arc of moral justice, that more people than not want to do what’s right. And I know for a fact that there are owner families out there who are inextricably tied to their communities. You don’t have to look much further than Green Bay and Pittsburgh to know that those teams are defined by their communities, and vice versa.”
Smith has a fight on his hands but he is willing to make it as public as he has to in order to make sure that next season happens without imperiling the financial and medical futures of the players. I asked him if there could be any NFLPA action around the upcoming NFL draft, and for the first time he smiled ear to ear and said, “Well, you’re just going to have to wait and see.”
[Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.]