DeMaurice Smith was a fighter from start to finish as NFLPA executive

DeMaurice Smith (right) was instrumental in forging several new collective bargaining agreements with the NFL as executive director of the NFL Players Association over the past 14 years. (Getty Images)

Sometime in July, DeMaurice Smith will walk out of NFL Players Association headquarters for the last time, his 14-year tenure as executive director of the union officially over.

Earlier this week, the NFLPA announced it had selected Lloyd Howell, a longtime executive at Booz Allen Hamilton, to succeed Smith, who had told the player executives. in 2021 that his new contract period would be his last.

Smith was just the third executive director of the NFLPA ever, a job he was unanimously voted into 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 going into private practice, Smith was well-connected in Washington, but not in football.

He was then, as he is now, a fighter.

Chatting with Yahoo Sports on Friday, on his way back to the union’s offices in Washington, DC for one of his final times, he was asked what three things he’s most proud of in his time with the NFLPA.

Smith begins easily on a list.

“On a macro perspective, it was getting the union back to being a union,” he said. “And that means fighting for our players’ pay, hours and working conditions. I know it sounds like a bit of an amorphous way to think about it, but there were things in the 2006 agreement that we didn’t like – it was we were unable to control much of the money that came from the top and went to the owners, we had no right to disagree with the league increasing the league up to 20 games for free and when it came to the health and safety of the players, all of that was in the hands of the NFL and frankly, they didn’t do a good job.

“So with a hardcore union view of this, it was, ‘We are the workers, how do we instill more control over our own destiny?’ And you saw it with everything from concussions to the protocols that I know were critical to keeping a young player alive [Buffalo’s Damar Hamlin] who fought for his life on the field last year. I know the things that this union did in terms of health and safety and emergency procedures were critical to that success.”

Smith did not have long to ease into his role at the Players Association. In 2008, NFL owners had opted out of the collective bargaining agreement signed just two years earlier because, in their view, the revenue share for the players—i.e. the people who is the game — was too loud. They wanted to cap salaries significantly 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 into the role of executive director. When Smith was selected, he was thrown in with the sharks, charged with figuring out who held power on the owners’ side and what the players wanted in the labor agreement.

Owners locked out players in 2011 as negotiations continued, a public battle that only turned after owners learned of a to that point secret insurance Smith had been authorized to acquire that would have paid each player about $200,000 if there was no football that year.

The belief was that players’ resolve would crumble as soon as they didn’t receive paychecks, especially the rank-and-file who were clinging to spots at the bottom of the roster and/or earning the league minimum. The policy aimed to mitigate this concern.

It never got to that point, and with Smith’s guidance, players were able to get things they never had before, especially in health and safety.

For Smith, one of the biggest wins in the 2011 CBA was that players gained the right to be paid for extra games. In the 2006 deal, the owners could have increased the regular season from 16 games to a full 20 without paying the players anything for the extra work, just as they had when they increased the regular season from 12 games to 14 and then 14 to 16. Now the union must approve any increase in the number of regular season games.

He prides himself on smaller details, and Smith says one of the things he’s most happy about is that the NFLPA is the first American professional sports union in the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) , a collection of prominent American unions. The MLB Players Association, MLS Players Association and NWSL Players Association and others followed suit.

“That’s because I think all of these unions need to have an eye on what’s in the best interest of the workers without first thinking of this business as a sport,” Smith said.

“And finally the infrastructure of the union increased dramatically. Our net assets that we use to protect our players, the earnings that go back to the players — I think when I started, a royalty check for players [via NFL Players Inc.] was less than $10,000, next year it will be $31,000. Minimum wages were [under $300,000] but at the end of this present agreement our minimum wage will be over a million dollars. And yes, it’s tied to the increase in revenue, but it’s more tied to our guaranteed share of that revenue.

Smith pauses.

“Can I add a fourth?” he asks.

Of course he is safe.

“I pride myself on being a bit of a geek in this business,” Smith said with a quick laugh. “I’ll tell you a quick story: When I got into this business, every conversation with every reporter, every GM and every player, every year, how much was the salary cap going up?

“It wasn’t until 2011 that we actually put a provision in the CBA about how much of that salary cap are we going to use? And I don’t really care that it’s been lost to a lot of people, but I believe in a really simple way, if you sit down in front of a potential employer and he or she says, “I have the ability to pay you $300,000,” are you happy? You shouldn’t be. You should ask another question, which is , I know you have the ability to pay me $300,000, how much of that are you actually going to pay me every year? Just the small change” — getting a salary floor or minimum that teams have to spend every year — “is billions of dollars swinging to players.

“It’s not the kind of thing that comes through the ESPN ticker, but for a group of people whose average career is three years, I think a union should focus on making those three years as profitable, as safe and as rewarding . as your career can be.”

DeMaurice Smith took over as CEO of the NFL Players Association at a critical time for the union in 2009. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

DeMaurice Smith took over as CEO of the NFL Players Association at a critical time for the union in 2009. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

That The NFL and NFLPA entered into another 10-year agreement in 2020, when COVID was just starting to rage and the team facilities were shut down. It passed the player vote by a very thin margin.

For someone so deeply dedicated to fighting, Smith is asked why the CBA was signed a year before the landmark 2011 one had expired?

“As 2020 approaches, we ask our players the things that are most important to them, and out of the top 15, we got 13 of them,” he said. “If you’re able to get 13 of your top 15 and not risk losing a strike, that’s what the players voted for.

“The difficult part of any union leader is not just to listen to what your players say, but to see what they do. And one of the things that I think has always been a barometer of the players’ willingness to miss out of a payroll, the number of players going to OTAs is free. Free.”

When it comes to what Smith wishes he had been able to achieve but didn’t, he gives a surprising and honest answer.

“I always wished I had done a better job of 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 US women’s national soccer team, they talked about hitting the World Cup. WC. Mostly these things have little to do with money and it has to do with exercising your will and your power.

“Despite what I would have wanted and asked our players to do, they are unwilling not to go to work for free. They are unwilling to pull all the NFL stuff from their social media. You’ve seen groups of people like teachers and nurses and the labor union and those people are walking away from wages where they are living paycheck to paycheck.Our minimum wage is over $800,000 a year.

“So is it a question of money? Or is it a question of will?”

As CEO, Smith’s primary job was to get the players as much of what they wanted as he could. We can argue about what the end results were, but the reality is that he got them more than they had ever gotten before, although it is clear that he felt they could have gotten more if they were willing.

As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink

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