This has been the most tumultuous month in the history of the National Football League. Below is an eye-opening interview with the National Football Player’s Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, who spoke to me about where the league goes from here. My questions have been edited for clarity, but Smith’s answers are as given.
Dave Zirin: I believe that the cover-up allegations that have plagued the National Football League over the last month could have been avoided if sanctions for issues like domestic violence had been collectively bargained instead of being left up to the whims of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Do you agree with that?
DeMaurice Smith: Well, yes and no. Look, the reality of it is… And obviously this is colored a bit by my background as a prosecutor/defense lawyer—whether I was handling crimes in the District of Columbia or handling high-profile issues for Fortune 500 companies where people do things that we didn’t want them to do—where I started is, look, we’re all flawed people. And as a result, there were always going to be times where people end up doing things that we wish they hadn’t. So that’s where it starts. Where you pick up, where I think—insightfully—you’re right, is after something like that happens, when we know that those things are going to happen. What we have always relied on is a transparency of process, a belief in due process, a fundamental vision of fairness for everybody. And, when that process breaks down, it breaks down on top of the issues that we know are going to happen. So, to your point, yes, if things are handled in the right way we tend to get through them… but much like the criminal justice system, where every day is predicated on something bad happening, the reason why it doesn’t all crumble down on itself is that there is a process that people have faith in. And when they lose faith in that process, that’s when you find yourself in sort of intractable situations with imperfect answers.
A lot of folks out there have no faith in the NFL’s process. Can you understand why many people, myself included, think that the NFL needs a new commissioner at this point?
That’s not my job. As you can imagine, I’m able to fill a day with the number of the things that I have to do without making or expressing opinions about other people’s jobs. I never concern myself with it. What I do believe is important is: one, this is a union that prides itself on being a labor union, just like the AFL-CIO, just like the Teamsters, just like the Communication Workers who—by the way—should rightfully congratulate themselves on a new deal in the airline industry. But, that said, our job is to serve our members and to make decisions that are in their best interest. And that’s what we’re going to do. And I don’t think that it is every helpful to overly personalize this process. Nobody hired me to take a position on Roger Goodell. And when I look at my duties as the executive director, there isn’t one of them that says to react personally about anything. So our job is to take a look at why we are here. I understand the outrage of our fans. I certainly understand the dissatisfaction that’s been expressed by our sponsors over how these issues have been handled. And it’s our intention to make sure that things like this are never mishandled again.