Q&A: DeMaurice Smith, head of the NFL Players Association

Q&A: DeMaurice Smith, head of the NFL Players Association

Bethesda resident talks about Tom Brady scandal, Redskins' name and other issues

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Photo by Skip Brown

On a summer day in June, DeMaurice Smith was sitting in what he calls his “haven,” a parlor with a stone fireplace and wood beams in his Bethesda home. At the time, Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), was just three days away from taking NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to court on a contempt motion and four days from Tom Brady’s first hearing on the “Deflategate” controversy in a federal court in New York. But the man who stands at the center of the NFL world—that rarefied place where billionaire owners clash with superstar athletes—seemed relaxed and comfortable, his new puppy, Riley, playing at his feet.

Three months later, in September, Brady and the NFLPA won their case against the NFL and Goodell, and a judge vacated the four-game suspension that had been given to Brady, the New England Patriots’ superstar quarterback. It was Smith’s latest victory connected to players who had been punished by Goodell in a series of high-profile cases. Over the past four years, Smith has helped clear New Orleans Saints players accused of accepting “bounty” payments for injuring opponents, and helped shorten lengthy suspensions for Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson after both players were involved in highly-publicized domestic violence incidents.

Smith, a former federal prosecutor and defense lawyer, has been at the helm of the union that represents the league’s players since 2009. He follows in the footsteps of the legendary Gene Upshaw, who served in the role for 25 years and helped usher in free agency, led a players strike in 1987 and worked to increase player salaries as the league’s popularity grew.
But Upshaw, a former offensive guard for the Oakland Raiders, was criticized for overlooking critical issues linked to the athletes he represented, including support for retired players and concerns about the long-term effects of injuries, such as concussions.

Since Smith took over, he has played pivotal roles in securing a new collective bargaining agreement in 2010, addressing questions about player safety, and, most recently, representing players involved in controversial criminal cases, such as Rice and Peterson. Smith also helped develop a pension system in which players and teams contribute to the support of retired players.

Smith, who graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1989, was elected to the union position after stints as a partner at the powerhouse Washington, D.C., law firms of Latham & Watkins and Patton Boggs.

Smith lives in Bethesda’s Woodhaven neighborhood with his wife, Karen, and son, Alex, a junior at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac. His daughter, Elizabeth, is a sophomore at Kenyon College in Ohio.

What was your early childhood like?

I was born in the District, lived right off of Alabama Avenue for a short while. My mother came up from Atlanta, Georgia, and became a nurse at the old Freedmen’s Hospital. My dad, after he got out of the Marine Corps, came up to D.C., became a teacher and then started working for the federal government. My mother worked at NIH for 40 years and my father for the Department of Transportation for 40 years before they retired.

Other than going away to school, I have always been in this area. I went to Riverdale Baptist in Upper Marlboro for high school. We used to come out here to play Landon, Flint Hill and all those schools back in the day.

You played defensive back on your high school football team. Do you remember how many interceptions you had?

I think between zero and one. But we had a fun team. And talk about a small world; my high school football coach works at Strosniders in Bethesda. I still go back and we talk. Coach Jim Beckett—great guy, just one of the guys who really was a huge influence on me in high school.

I’ve always been blessed with good coaches and good mentors, and he was probably one of the first ones who stayed on me about school, stayed on me about grades, and who was really insistent on performing well on the field, performing well off the field.

When did you figure out you wanted to be an attorney?

Probably around my sophomore year in college. I went to Cedarville University, a small Baptist liberal arts school in Ohio. The ministry interested me, and I thought that was a probable path. Right around sophomore year I realized I wasn’t being called to go into the ministry. I became student government president, and right about that point is when law school seemed to make the most sense. There was a professor at Cedarville that I really connected with, Gary Percesepe. He encouraged me to go to law school and not think about staying small.

What did you do after law school?

I went to a small white-collar defense firm in Georgetown called Schwalb Donnenfeld Bray & Silbert. Earl Silbert, [a prosecutor in the Watergate case], recruited me out of law school to work there. I was there for almost two years. Then I was a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in the District for nine years.

How did that job, prosecuting criminals at the D.C. U.S. attorney’s office, prepare you for your job now?

You’re asked to make a lot of hard calls under a tremendous amount of pressure, so you do take away from that job a level of not only confidence in your ability, but confidence in your thought process.

You come into a job like I have now, and it comes with its levels of pressure, and at times you have to make tough calls. It was nice to have a job where even as a young lawyer you were able to grow into that and learn the value of the right process, the right partners, the right teammates and the right vision. And so the job becomes much more manageable. I couldn’t imagine having this job without that as a background.

I left the U.S. attorney’s office when Eric Holder became the deputy attorney general [in 1997]. I went to the Department of Justice and I was there for almost two years.

Were you close with Eric Holder?

Yes, very, very close. Another one of those people, mentors. The first time I met him, I was a prosecutor when he was a judge on the Superior Court, and then later on he became the U.S. attorney, and I worked directly for him.

I think probably the best lesson I got from Eric was about being a good husband and good father—to see someone in a position like the deputy attorney general and then attorney general of the United States, knowing that while he’s pulled in a number of directions, it’s important to get home and be there for your family.

Fast forwarding through your years at white-collar defense firms like Patton Boggs, how did you end up at the NFL Players Association?

[In 2008], I started working on the transition team for DOJ for then-Sen. Barack Obama. And I got a call from a search firm saying your name has come up as a candidate that we’d like to interview for the next executive director of the NFL Players Association.

My first thought was, ‘I’m not interested in that,’ because I was really interested in going back to the District of Columbia as the U.S. attorney.

I decided to talk to the players association while I was going through the U.S. attorney process. They explained that they had other candidates who are sports agents, sports executives, former players, but the executive committee at that time really wanted to take a look at a few people who had a traditional business, law, politics and corporate background.

When you started the job, you had two years to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. What was that like?

The one thing we knew at the time is that the league openly touted that they had a $4 billion war chest to lock out the players. So you get elected in 2009, and the first thing you know is you’re facing $4 billion and 32 billionaires—there’s not a whole heck of a lot of time of kumbaya and celebration, we just really got to work.

Recently, the players union has been in the middle of several public controversies over players’ personal conduct. At the center of this debate has been a question about whether Commissioner Roger Goodell should be able to unilaterally decide players punishments. What do you think it’s going to take to have a neutral party settle disputes like those involving Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice and Tom Brady?

Obviously for the players, we think that neutral arbitration, like we have for on-field fines, is a fairer system. But even when I step back, and the player leadership steps back, neutral arbitration is also a very good thing for the owners and the NFL as a whole. I think that our fans would rather have a system that is predictable, fair for both owners and players, and not in the news every day.

Do you think there’s a chance Ray Rice will play again in the NFL?

People make mistakes, but I think one of the highest human capacities that we have is redemption and forgiveness. I think that Ray is a guy that understood the mistake that he made, paid dearly for it, but is a young man who should be given a chance to play football. Right now, I believe there is a concerted effort to keep him out of football.

Do you ever feel conflicted about representing certain players, especially after seeing something like the Ray Rice video?

No, because we’re not defending the conduct as much as we’re defending what their rights are under the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Whether it was Ray Rice and the domestic violence incident or Tom Brady, those cases were overturned not on the conduct of the players, but on the conduct of the league and their unwillingness to follow due process.

What was your reaction when a federal judge in New York cleared Tom Brady in the “Deflategate” case?

I probably won’t ever forget being on the phone with Tom as the opinion came in. I felt very happy for him, but a lot happier for the union because this is what we do.
It was a very long summer. I felt that it wasn’t a particularly good thing for our business. But, I’m glad that Tom had the resolve and I know that I pushed the rest of our legal team to fight hard not only for this player, but for all the players.

Do you remember Brady’s reaction at the time?

I think we just had a very, very, very long laugh.

What was your primary role in that case?

I had three. The first is to make all the strategic decisions of how we’re going to fight the case—whether it’s fighting it in the courtroom or trying to negotiate a resolution with the National Football League.

Two, it’s to make sure that we keep a firm eye on the role of the union. That’s making sure our media reps and our players understand what the fight is about and why we’re taking this position.

The third hat that we wear is the traditional lawyer hat. We always use a great legal team, but I approve every legal brief, every legal argument, everything that goes out under the union’s name.

Do you think the Brady case may be a tipping point, in terms of having the policy changed?

I think that we’re past the tipping point. I would have made it the [New Orleans Saints] bounty case, when Paul Tagliabue, a former commissioner [who was brought in to investigate the incident], overturned the current commissioner. I’m not sure there’s ever more of a tipping point than when a former commissioner overturns a current commissioner. But yet we went from bounty to Rice to Peterson and we’re still where we are.

Do you think there’s a double standard in terms of the way the league investigates and punishes owners versus players?

I know there’s a double standard. Right now, we will deal with every instance of alleged misconduct by a player. [However], whether it was the DEA raids [visiting team medical staffs in New Jersey, Baltimore and Kansas City in 2014] or [other] instances of owner misconduct, we haven’t had any of that level of investigation when it comes to [owners].

What are you working to change in the future?

We have to remain diligent about what changes we can make to the game and to practice to make the game even safer. This will be one of the first years we’ll have a comprehensive and ongoing playing surface examination. I’m interested in taking a look at injuries on natural grass vs. artificial turf.

The second thing that is very important to us, and something we’re going to be doing in the future, is offering grants and submissions from outside developers on improving the equipment that our players use—contests where if you have an idea for building a better helmet or coming up with a new pad system, you can enter.

For example, I read recently about water-cooled shoulder pads to decrease body heat. We’re very interested, and we have been working with a few developers on wearable technology—shirts and sensors that would provide the player with more information to take ownership of their own health and safety.

Have you ever had a concussion?

I had a concussion once in high school and I had a concussion running outdoor track in college. A pole vault broke in the infield, flew out on the track and clipped a bunch of us. I went down and went face-first into the track and was knocked out. I don’t remember it.

When it comes to concussions, my concern is we need to have better procedures for handling concussions when they happen in practice. In games we have protocols, with neutral doctors clearing players to return to the game.

The union still has concerns about how concussions are addressed in practice. For every concussion, there are multiple sub-concussive events [or head injuries that don’t qualify as concussions, but can still cause long-term damage].

What science tells us is that the sub-concussive events can be just as dangerous if a.) they are non-diagnosed or b.) a person is suffering a number of sub-concussive events that don’t rise to the level of concussions.

For example, the reason why we insisted on doing away with two-a-day practices is not a fear of concussions, but a fear of multiple sub-concussive events.

What’s your day-to-day life like during the season?

I visit all the teams during the season. I have 32 teams to visit, and we start the first week in September and we typically end the week before Thanksgiving. We talk about union issues, health, safety, wages, benefits. We talk about our strategic plan to protect the players’ interests.

I think it’s incredibly important for our players to not only understand the economics of the business that they’re in, but also appreciate their obligations to themselves to be fiscally responsible—to understand how to navigate the world as an extremely young business person and to also never forget the average career of our players is 3½ years. The real strategy should be: How do you get more out of football than football gets out of you?

What’s your take on the Redskins’ name?
I grew up a fan of the team. I grew up during the Larry Brown years, and Chris Hanburger and Diron Talbert and Sonny Jurgensen. Then later on it was Art Monk and Darrell Green.
We shouldn’t be in a world where we’re doing anything, I think, that intentionally or recklessly denigrates or insults or prejudices anybody. I don’t think anybody should think that issues of prejudice or slander are things that we should overlook.

If they change the name, are all the people who grew up fans of the team, like me, going to become less fans of the team? I think the answer is no. I think we should be always looking for how we use sports to unite people and bring people together—those are the things I tried to instill in my son and daughter.

Does your son play football?

No. We told him that he could play football. He was thinking about leaving school and switching schools to play football, but then he decided, no, I’m going to stay at St. Andrew’s [which does not have a football team]. He’s a three-sport athlete there.

For any parent thinking about whether their kid should play a sport—whether it’s lacrosse, football or anything else—I think it’s very important that kids at the earliest age understand that they need to take ownership of their own health and safety.

I don’t think any parent should just blindly drop their kid in a sport and say, ‘Hey, have at it, good luck.’ We have an obligation as parents in the same way we taught our kids how to ride a bike. We didn’t just stick them on the bike and push them down a hill, right? No, we were with them until we knew they could keep their balance—that they knew when to stop, what posed dangers, what was unsafe.

How did you end up in Bethesda?

I just always loved the area. First we moved to Kensington, and that was a great spot for us. We were a young couple with a small house and we used the parks nearby. I was working for the U.S. attorney’s office. It was a nice place to live, it was near the Metro.

Once we had kids and needed a larger place, we moved to Silver Spring. Again, it was just fantastic for us. We lived right off of Layhill Road, across from the old Indian Spring Country Club. That’s really where our kids grew up. It was a great block with young kids, great Halloweens.

Then we moved to Bethesda in 2008. We had been looking at this house for a long time. We were up in Boston on a trip and the house went on the market, so I left the family in Boston, flew down and bought the house.

We just fell in love with this place. It’s a huge lot, it’s quiet. It’s my fortress of solitude. I can sit in my backyard, have a nice fire and, at least temporarily, drift away.


Courtesy Photo

FAVORITE RESTAURANTS: Grapeseed in Bethesda and Medium Rare in Northwest D.C.

ON HIS NIGHTSTAND: Grapes of Wrath, which he is reading with his daughter, and The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League

FAVORITE WAY TO KEEP IN SHAPE: Working out with his son


Andrew Metcalf writes for Bethesda Beat, the magazine’s daily online news briefing. He can be reached at andrew.metcalf@bethesdamagazine.com.

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