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 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.”