Guest Post submitted by Joshua Lagan
We know him as the man who ended the 2011 NFL lockout. The man who endured a four month bout with Roger Goodell and the NFL team owners. The man who secured the future of the National Football League for the foreseeable future. His name is DeMaurice Smith, and he was gracious enough to allow me to interview him for Sports Networker.
DeMaurice Smith is the Executive Director of the National Football League Players Association; elected unanimously by a board of active player representatives on Marc.
Prior to his work with the NFL Players Association, Smith was a trial lawyer and litigation partner in the Washington, D.C. offices of Latham & Watkins and Patton Boggs. Smith has also represented numerous Fortune 500 companies. He earned such a high reputation in the legal community that he was given the job with the NFL Players Association despite very little sports legal background. Most importantly, Smith played a major role in helping the players and NFL owners come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement.
DeMaurice Smith is known for reaching an agreement with the National Football League, but his legacy will be for instilling in players of the National Football League the importance of integrity, faith, and honor. As he said in the interview, “they are going to touch far more people by the things that they do off the field than they ever will on the field.” DeMaurice Smith’s goal is to take professional athletes, and make them men of character.
During the interview, we discussed:
- Smith’s undergraduate time at Cedarville University, and how it prepared him for his career
- How he became Executive Director of the NFL Players Association from being a Corporate Attorney
- About faith and courage, and why those are the most important traits
- Further detail about the NFL Lockout and what it looked like from the inside
- What moment of his career he is proudest of
- His priorities and goals as Executive Director of the NFL Players Association
- His advice for those looking to enter the Sports Business Industry
DeMaurice Smith – Executive Director – NFL Players Association Interview
DeMaurice Smith – Video Transcription
Hello Everyone, I would like to welcome you all to sportsnetworker.com. My name is Joshua Lagan. I have a very special guest with me today, DeMaurice Smith – President of the NFL Players Association. De, thanks so much for your time today.
My pleasure, great to join you.
De when I was looking through your [Work] history you had a pretty unique background. I was hoping to start at the beginning of your college years at Cedarville University (a small liberal arts school in Ohio for those who don’t know it) and have you talk about your decision to go there and how it prepared you for your future career?
Well, I went to a Baptist high school in Washington DC. Cedarville was a school that had recruited a number of players- athletes to run track and basketball at Cedarville. When I went to visit it seemed like the perfect school for me the right size- the right opportunities, the things that would interest me. But really, the big change for me was a few of the professors at Cedarville. When you have that rare mix of being able to enjoy sports and you’re with people who can excite you mentally, intellectually, and spiritually, it became just a tremendous place for me to go to school.
So you were a track runner in college correct?
I was a track guy.
I was reading about that it seemed like you had some success. You referenced that in some of your interviews.
Well you know, we had a great track program at Cedarville, I love it a lot. I was fortunate enough to run well while I was there, although I will tell you those days are over. I lost recently to my 12 year old son a few days ago, so those are just historical memories right now.
Well you’ve got the memories to go back to so that’s good. What parts of Cedarville would you say were the most beneficial for your future career? Some of the things you mentioned in some other interviews I was looking at, was you said it really matured you, it taught you leadership, it taught you independent thinking- just talk about that for a little bit
Well like anyone coming out of high school and the maturation progress it’s something that’s probably that moment in your life that is truly transformational. For me, I became involved with student government as freshman class president then ultimately became student government president. It was a great opportunity for me, it was the first time an African-American had become president of the Student government association. Track was one again where you mature as an athlete in a way you didn’t think you could. I look back on my coach Elvin King, who taught me so many things you can’t really learn in any other environment or any other paradigm. When you are in a situation where a man or a coach is able to bring things out of you that you didn’t think you have, it’s a tremendous opportunity for growth. Then professors like Dr. Gary Percesepe my Philosophy professor who challenged me intellectually in a way that I had never been challenged before those are tremendous opportunities, then again for the growth of my faith. Learning about how all of that fit into a very neat paradigm. Those are the things that remain with you for the rest of your life and you may not recognize it when you’re going through it but you are truly maturing as an individual and for that I’ll always be thankful that I went to a place like Cedarville.
Thank you for that. And I’ve actually gotten to visit Cedarville a couple times as I mentioned in the email, three of my older brothers all went there. So I’ve gotten to go to the chapels I’ve gotten to meet Dr. Brown who you referenced as one of your influencers so I can definitely attest to the teachers and students there because I felt inspired just with my weekends there.
CU was just a tremendous place. I look back at it with tremendous memories
Wonderful. My next question is related to your law career and switching into sports. You worked for nine years (I estimated from your LinkedIn) at Patton and Boggs, Latham & Watkins doing all kinds of corporate crisis, white collar, as a trial attorney, all different types of law and then switched into sports. Clearly you were a sports fan because you ran track but could you talk about what was going through your mind and the decision making in that.
Sure. I’ve had a great career, feels like multiple careers now, even before going into private practice. I was a prosecutor here in Washington DC for almost 10 years. You know at it’s core, regardless of whether you’re at this job or a law firm job or a prosecutor job, the first thing you look for is a great challenge and a great opportunity. What I loved about all three of these careers was it gave me an opportunity to really try to perform at an extremely high level where there were clear risks of success or failure. For me, those are the kinds of things that I dig. I like the passion that comes from challenging yourself to perform at a high level, I love the opportunity to try to help people – become better. So whether it was as a kid prosecutor here in the city trying homicide cases, or whether it was representing some of the biggest corporations in the world or whether moving into this job and representing the players of the NFL, regardless of the content or the subject matter. It was all about partnering with the right teams, making sure you perform at a high level, and making sure the people around you perform at their best. I loved those things intellectually. I loved those things as a challenge emotionally, and it’s been a great ride.
How did the NFL job present itself. How did you find out about that opportunity?
As simple as it may sound, I was sitting at my desk one day and the phone rang and it was a person from a search committee. He said we are putting together a group of a few hundred people to be considered for this job of Executive Director for the NFL Players Association and are you interested. And really it started as simply as that. It came out of the blue. I was sort of headed into another direction. I was working on the transition team. I really thought one of two things was going to happen. Either I was going to stay at the firm, or go back into public policy, into the government, when the call came. I talked it over with my wife, prayed about it, thought about it and the process kind of developed itself until I was sitting in this chair.
So living by faith, as you talked about in your speech to Cedarville in 2010.
Well you have to. I had a great job and a great career; I’ve been able to do a lot of different things. You kid yourself if you believe that you have either the wherewithal or the ability of really mapping out your future. All of that assumes that you even know what’s best. I look back on being a prosecutor, and all of the things that went into getting that opportunity. And all of the crazy things I had to manage and we had to manage while I was there. You’re truly kidding yourself if you believe you as an individual have the ultimate ability of steering your life of steering your faith. I met my wife through the University of Virginia because I didn’t get the summer job I wanted one day and I ended up working at the attorney generals office of Virginia, really at the last minute and who knows, I met my wife there and we’ve been married for 20 years. My guess is, if any of us believe that we can do this ourselves, we’re just kidding ourselves, all the time. All you’ve got is faith.
I agree with that. My ending up here in NYC is a testimony to that as well, but this interview is about you so I’ll save that for another time.
The other end. You’ll do the next interview after this.
Perfect. During the NFL lockout last year, you represented the NFL PA’s association. It was really tense, really public, really stressful especially for us fan. I think a lot of us are wondering, what did your life look like during that. Are you flying around the country meeting with owners? Are you locked in a room with Roger Goodell? What did your day to day look like during that period?
It was a little bit of all of that. The lead up to the lockout was really the most important thing, that we placed a premium on. Much of the way that a game is played, or a play is snapped, here we really think not so much of how the play is going to be executed but whether or not we are going to be in the right position to make a play at all. The real important part was the lead up to the lock out. Preparing our players about what the issues were and how important those issues are. How they had to protect themselves and think about the business of football. Then during the intensity of those negotiations, for about a year and a half that’s really exactly what it was. You do whatever it takes to make sure that the people you represent are aware, that they’re empowered, that they are in a position to make the right decision when they have to. Was it stressful, yeah just a little bit. I’ll never forget, it was this week or next week when it was the critical dates, my wife was on a trip with some of her friends, my kids were home alone, and I was trying to negotiate the deal down here. My daughter called from home and said,. “dad there’s no food in the house”. So during the most important part of that lockout, yours truly was zipping off to the supermarket and buying everything my kid could possibly need for the next three days. So yeah, you end up juggling a lot.
How’s that for a de-stressor, running to the grocery store.
In all seriousness, I was running through the aisles, buying whatever my daughter had texted me. And ESPN was camped out in front of our building so they were tracking our every move. I’m in the milk department trying to figure which percentage of skim milk to buy and a guy comes up to me and says aren’t you the guy who represents the players, and shouldn’t you be negotiating a deal right now? I turned into a lawyer and said please can you just leave me alone for about fifteen minutes, I‘ve got to get this done. And we did and it was a testament to how good and how strong our player’s leadership is.
I was going to ask, did you have a moment where you realized – you grew up watching the NFL, you’re the negotiator. But it sounds like that was kind of your moment.
That was the moment. I am the milk purchaser. That’s the most important job I have.
Well I never saw that photo on ESPN, so it looks like you’re safe for now. President of the NFLPA sneaks out to buy milk during procedure.
So maybe it was this incident, maybe it was another one, I was curious, what moment would you say you were most proud of during your career. Was it when you finished the lock out? Some case you did? When you sat back and said, I’m glad I was a part of this.
I’ve been lucky to have a few of those moments. My last trial at the US attorney office. Was a prosecution of a quadruple murderer. I can think back to a kidnapping case that I had where we were able to secure the release of a 13 year old boy who had been kidnapped. I can remember representing some of the best companies in America, achieve something that they thought was important. You know in the last five years, I’ll be dead honest with you. Probably one of the peaks, was after we had been locked out, and so many people in the media talked about how the players were going to fall apart, they wouldn’t be able to last, they would treat the lockout as the moment in which the league owners broke them. And we were at our annual meeting in Marko Island in Florida, and I can remember the tremendous amount of calm with which our player leaders approached the fact that they were actually locked out. Nobody panicked, nobody lost their mind, nobody was overly concerned. Everyone understood what was going to happen. And in a very disciplined and mature way, you saw a group of football players grow up and accomplish something that many people didn’t think they could do. And that will probably be one of the proudest moments I’ll ever had.
Beautiful. As a football fan, it speaks to me. One of the things I’ve really appreciated about your time as President of the NFL Players Association, is you’ve really stressed to the players about taking control of their careers, the importance of family life, the importance of education, can you talk about how you’re communicating that message to the players and how it’s being responded to.
You know, I don’t try to talk to players in any different way. I’ve heard that some like to characterize it as a new way to talk to players, or in a different way/expecting more out of them, but why wouldn’t you approach them as a man, as a family man, as a member of the community that he is. And to me, that expectation of them is the same expectation that I would have for my son or my daughter. I want you to be a good person, I want you to be a good family person, I want you to be a great member of your community. I want you to respect yourself. The thing that you do is certainly a great thing, but it’s a job. And you have the opportunity of doing something many people in the world would only dream about. But what comes with that is a tremendous amount of responsibility not only to your community but certainly to yourself. And if you in any way shape or form are playing this game at a very high level but fail to serve your community at a high level or you fail to serve your family at a high level. The person you’ve failed the most is yourself. So for our guys, I love what they do on the field, but to be dead honest with you, I’m far more concerned about them getting their college degree. About them getting their graduate degree, if that’s what excites them. I’m far more concerned about what they do in their community. I expect them to support and provide for their families and at the end of the day to respect themselves as young men, who at the end of the day will be non-football players, far longer than they were football players. So it seems to be if we are able to do those things, those are truly the measures of what it means to be a man. And to me, while football is an incredible sport, at the end of the day, those are the things they should be looking back on as really success strategies. Not what their runs after catch were, or how many picks they had, or touchdowns they had. They are going to touch far more people by the things that they do off the field than they are going to on the field.
I’m hearing Cedarville speaking to me right now. It’s the same message they share on their Sunday Chapels.
They do, and to be surrounded by coaches and professors who believe that and give you the opportunity to live it. I’m blessed, and Cedarville became really an extension of the way in which I was brought up by my parents, and as we go further, it’s what I try to instill in my own kids.
Changing topics a little bit, talking about your career, what would you say the qualities and skills that you’ve exhibited, helping you to rise to your current position. Which would you say are most important? For example, we have a lot of speakers in our summer program and they say you have to be the first one in and the last one out. Obviously integrity and honesty, but in your career what would you say are the qualities that you’ve had that are the most important.
There’s always a range, but the thing that I try to impress upon my kids is courage. It is very hard in today’s world, and I think probably because where we are media wise being the greatest contributor, there is so much negative message. There is so much talk, where people can instantly criticize, instantly cast a gate, anything anybody says, and certainly anybody does, and I think the downside of that is you can almost become paralyzed into inaction because you are overly concerned about how that can be portrayed on your Facebook page in the twitter world, on Skype, or on some form of media outlet. As a result, people are afraid to take stands, afraid to do something that’s risky. There comes a time when all you have is your courage. Because you can certainly write down the six reasons you should do this, and the six reasons you shouldn’t do this. And it’s easy to choose, not to do it because no one is ever going to criticize you for not taking a step. So at the end of the day, a lot of times all you have left is your courage. And overcoming your own fear. You know I’m very fond of those wisdoms, those pieces of learning where you look at people in tough situations where they ultimately just had the courage, or the faith to take the step. You know, not knowing how the story is going to end. And all of us love those historic stories where someone tells some story about a guy or a gal doing something really important. But you know, all those stories are told from the end of the story backwards. But the person who had to live the story, didn’t know how the story was going to end. And if you boil those things down, there is always going to be a moment where you can’t reason or think your way through. It will be a fundamental decision of faith and courage, and having that, and having the knowledge of people who really care about you, who are going to love you no matter what, that’s the part of the time of the day when you should flush all the blogs down the toilet and turn the twitter off and shut down your Facebook page, and not read the op eds, those are the days where truly where courage will take you to where you need to be. And for that there are a lot of things I learned but you only experience courage. I’m blessed to have great bosses who have trusted me enough to put me be in positions to fail or to succeed. And that’s how you get there.
I think your life and career is a testament to that. Going into the lockout, that was not a clean situation, it was a pretty messy situation, lots of opportunity for failure as you just said. But you showed courage, and you showed faith, and I feel anyway, that your efforts were blessed, and you got the results that you wanted. It’s cool hearing about courage and faith from you, because your life proves that.
My final question for you because I know how important your time is, is what advice would you give to people looking to break into the sports business industry.
Two simple things, and the first one is about any industry. If you don’t dig it, don’t do it. There are so many things that you can do in life, if you have the opportunity of finding something that you enjoy, pursue it with all your passion. Because at the end of the day, all of these jobs are tough tough jobs, and you might as well dig what you’re doing. As opposed to going to work every day and hating it. I can’t really think of anything that would be worse than that. The second thing, whether it’s the sports industry or anything else related to sports, find out what it takes to be good, and to understand it, and really sink your teeth into understanding all the things that going into that business. That is not really a readily apparent thing I think to a lot of folks. You and I both know heading into this lock out, the wind up into the lockout, you had all sorts of pundits saying this is an important issue, this is into an important issue, whether it was a rookie wage scale or a two extra games, or name your issue. Very few people actually took the time to dive into and learn what the issues are. At the end of the day, it’s about understanding the field in which you want to pursue, understanding what factors are important, understanding where the pressure points are and where they aren’t. It really isn’t an opportunity to over simplify things. The real trick is understanding all these things fully, then trying to figure out how the pieces of the puzzle come together. For anyone thinking about this job, I have to tell you, it’s one of the best jobs on the planet. It’s also one of the hardest jobs on the planet. It’s about understanding it. And if you understand it, and you want to work hard to figure it out, and if you love it, and you dig it, I can’t imagine doing anything else that’s more fun.
Well that’s awesome, De. Thank you so much for your time. You have a wonderful story and it’s so nice to hear the tips and things that you’ve learned from your experience. So thank you again for your time.
My pleasure and thanks for calling me. Take care of yourself alright.
I will. Thank you, De. Have a good day.
i most interested in sports But I not spend more time….. I need to play a lots of game dude…
i most interested in sports But I not spend more time….. I need to play a lots of game dude…
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