In July, DeMaurice Smith will step down from NFL Players Association headquarters for the final time, with his 14-year tenure as the union’s executive director officially over.
Earlier this week, the NFLPA announced it had elected Lloyd Howell, a longtime Booz Allen Hamilton executive, to succeed Smith, who told player leaders in 2021 that his new term would be his last.
Smith was only the NFLPA’s third executive director, a position he was unanimously elected to in 2009 after the death of Gene Upshaw, who had led the group for 25 years. A career litigator with experience in the U.S. Attorney’s Office before moving into private practice, Smith had good connections in Washington, but not in football.
He was then, as he remains today, a fighter.
Chatting with Yahoo Sports on Friday, returning to the union’s offices in Washington, DC for one of his last times, he asked what were the three things he was most proud of during his time in the NFLPA.
Smith gladly starts a list.
“From a macro point of view, it was bringing the union back to being a union again,” he said. “And that means fighting for the wages, hours and working conditions of our players. I know that sounds like a somewhat amorphous way of thinking about it, but there were things in the 2006 agreement that we didn’t like – we weren’t able to control a lot of the money coming from the top and going to the owners, we had no right to disagree with the league growing the league up to 20 games for free, and as far as the health and safety of the players was concerned, that was all in the hands of the NFL and frankly, they weren’t doing a good job.
“So taking a hard-line union view of that was, ‘We are the workers, how can we instill more control over our own destiny? And you saw that with everything from concussions to protocols that I know were essential to keeping a young player alive [Buffalo’s Damar Hamlin] who was fighting for his life on the pitch last year. I know the things this union has done with respect to health and safety and emergency procedures have been key to that success. »
Smith didn’t have long to adjust to his role in the Players Association. In 2008, the owners of the NFL withdrew from the collective agreement signed just two years earlier because, in their view, the share of revenue for the players – that is, the people who are the game – was too high. They wanted to drastically limit salaries and avoid funding certain benefits for retired players.
Upshaw’s death was a surprise; the owners had months to get on the same page and prepare as the NFLPA worked to find capable candidates and ultimately vote one in for the executive director position. Once Smith was chosen, he was thrown in with the Sharks, tasked with figuring out both who had the power on the owners’ side and what the players wanted in the contract.
The owners locked players out in 2011 as negotiations continued, a public fight that only erupted after the owners learned of a secret insurance policy so badly that Smith got the l authorization to acquire which would have paid each player approximately $200,000 if there was no football that year.
The belief was that players’ resolve would crumble as soon as they failed to receive paychecks, especially the base clinging to spots at the bottom of the roster and/or earning the league minimum. The policy was intended to allay that concern.
It never got to this point, and with Smith’s guidance players were able to get things they never had before, especially in the area of health and safety.
For Smith, one of the biggest wins of the 2011 CBA was that players had the right to be paid for extra games. In the 2006 deal, the owners could have expanded the regular season from 16 games to 20 without paying players anything for the extra work, just as they did when they expanded the regular season from 12 games to 14. , then from 14 to 16. Now the union must approve any increase in the number of regular season games.
Focusing on smaller details, Smith says one of the things he’s happiest about is that the NFLPA is America’s premier professional sports union within the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL- CIO), a group of leading American labor unions. The MLB Players Association, MLS Players Association and NWSL Players Association and others have followed suit.
“It’s because I believe all of these unions need to have their eye on what’s in the best interest of workers without thinking of this company as a sport first,” he explained.
“And finally, the infrastructure of the syndicate has grown tremendously. Our net assets that we use to protect our players, the revenue that goes back to the players – I think when I started, a royalty check for the players [via NFL Players Inc.] was less than $10,000, next year it will be $31,000. Minimum wages were [under $300,000] but by the end of the current agreement, our minimum wages will exceed $1 million. And yes, it’s tied to increased revenue, but it’s more tied to our guaranteed share of that revenue.
“Can I add a fourth?” he asks.
Of course, it is insured.
“I’m proud to be a bit of a nerd in this business,” Smith said with a chuckle. “I’ll tell a quick story: When I got into this business, every conversation with every reporter, every GM and every player, every year, was how much was the salary cap going up?
“It wasn’t until 2011 that we put a provision in the CBA on how much of this salary cap we’re going to spend? And I don’t care if that’s lost on a lot of people, but I think in a very simple way if you sit down in front of a potential employer and they say, “I have the ability to pay you $300,000,” are you satisfied? You shouldn’t be. You should ask a second question, which is, I know you have the ability to pay me $300,000, how much are you actually going to pay me every year? That little change alone” – getting a floor salary, or a minimum that teams have to spend each year – “is billions of dollars to players.
“These aren’t the kinds of things that go through the ESPN ticker, but for a group of people whose average career is three years, I think a union should strive to make those three years as profitable, as safe and as rewarding as your career can be.”
The NFL and NFLPA reached another 10-year deal in 2020 as COVID was just beginning to rage and team facilities were closed. He passed the players’ vote by a very narrow margin.
For someone so deeply dedicated to the fight, one asks Smith, why was this CBA signed a year before the 2011 one expired?
“When 2020 comes around, we ask our players what things are most important to them, and out of the top 15 we have 13,” he said. “If you’re able to get 13 of your best 15 and not risk losing a strike, that’s what the players voted on.
“The hardest part of any union leader is not just listening to what your players say, but watching what they do. And one of the things that I think has always been a barometer of the willingness of players to miss a paycheck is the number of players who go to OTAs for free.
As for the one thing Smith wished he could have accomplished but didn’t, he offers a surprisingly candid answer.
“I always wished I had done a better job trying to get players to exercise both their will and their power,” he said. “WNBA players got rid of one of their owners [Kelly Loeffler of the Atlanta Dream]. The United States women’s national soccer team was talking about winning the World Cup. World Cup. For the most part, these things have little to do with money and they have to do with exercising your will and your power.
“Despite what I would have wanted and asked our players to do, they don’t want to go to work for free. They don’t want to take all the NFL stuff off their social media. You’ve seen groups of people like teachers and the nurses and the workers’ guild, and these people are moving away from the wages where they live paycheck to paycheck. Our minimum wage is over $800,000 a year.
“So is it a question of money?” Or is it a matter of will?
As executive director, Smith’s main job was to get the players as much of what they wanted as possible. We can quibble about the end results, but the reality is that he got more of them than they’ve ever gotten before, although it’s clear he felt like they could have gotten more if they wanted to.
As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.