Part Two of a two-part interview
I spoke with DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, before he and the association were given LAANE’s City of Justice Award at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on December 8. The first half of the interview ran yesterday in the Frying Pan.
Caroline O’Connor: Do you feel that the NFL owners had an agenda to bust the players’ union?
DeMaurice Smith: I made it perfectly clear to our players that the existence of our union was what was at stake. I believed that the day I took the job. It was important for our players to understand that this was not just a contract negotiation.
CO: It appears that there was a lot of real solidarity among the star players and all of the players. How was that achieved?
Smith: One of the unwritten stories is all across the country, we created wives’ groups. I know that my wife is the strongest person in our family. We started reaching out very early on to the wives of players to make sure that they understood the magnitude of this lockout that was coming, that they were going to lose their health insurance.
CO: Why do professional football players need a union?
Smith: When you look at the fact that we have pensions, post career health care, workers compensation, that we are represented and have the ability to grieve injustices — all of those things weren’t gifts from our owners. There is not one gain that we have as a group of players that former players did not sacrifice and at times lose their jobs for. I think when our guys understood that players like Bill Radovich, John Gordy, Freeman McNeil and Reggie White, and a lot of people who aren’t even alive anymore, put their careers on the line to get a benefit that they knew they would never get to utilize. They did it because they knew that one day there would be guys named Domonique Foxworth and Tim Tebow playing in the league. They knew that one day those guys needed to have a strong union.
CO: Do these players now see themselves as a part of a larger labor movement?
Smith: Oh yeah. Guys like Aaron Rodgers and Charles Woodson, Super Bowl Champions with the Green Bay Packers, were on the front lines with the folks marching in Wisconsin. Players like Scott Fujita, whose brother is a Teamster, have been helping out the dock workers and the ship workers in Cleveland. We jumped into the fray in May of ’09, three months after I got elected, to walk on picket lines in Chicago, San Antonio and Boston. I’ll tell you as long as I have this job, we’re going to be shoulder to shoulder with organized labor.
CO: What kind of support did you receive from organized labor during the lockout?
Smith: Oh, we don’t have that much time!
CO: One example that stands out to you.
Smith: There is probably no one in organized labor that I am closer to than John Wilhelm from UNITE HERE. Most of my career was representing management, but folks like John, Rich Trumka, Terry O’Sullivan, Jim Hoffa, those were folks who very quickly took me under their wings and when I had questions like, “How do I organize?” I called them. When you said, that I sounded a lot like an organizer, I didn’t even know what organizing was. But when John and those guys said it is important for you to get on the road, I saw all 32 teams three times before we signed our agreement. Why? It’s organizing one-on-one.
CO: Are we going to get an L.A. football team?
Smith: I hope so. One of the reasons that we made the decision to bring our collegiate bowl here was to express our support for the City of Los Angeles. We’re going to do whatever we can to make sure the great fans out here have a team. (He reaches for a glass of water.)
CO: Here you are in L.A. You nailed your public service announcement. You are very good in front of the camera. Have you ever thought about show biz?
Smith: (Almost spits out the water) I’ve never gotten that one! I’ve gotten, “Are you going to run for Congress?” No. “Are you going to go into public service?” No. I’ve never gotten the whole show biz thing. The answer is No . . . No . . . No. Incredibly short, out of shape, executive director — I don’t know what kind of market there is for that. My guess is there is probably not that much of a reality show in the making.
CO: Law and Order?
Smith: I was a prosecutor for way too long. No, no, no, no. Wow. I didn’t expect that one.
CO: What are you going to do for the holidays?
Smith: I’m going to get some sleep.