U.S. Fascination With Football Met With Concerns About Safety

Football remains the most watched sport in the U.S., and ratings for this season are better than ever. But NFL team owners opted out of a collective bargaining agreement, putting labor relations, along with players' longtime health concerns, back in the spotlight. Host Michel Martin speaks with DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, for more.

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(Soundbite of music)

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, my thoughts on the Fort Hood shooting in my weekly commentary. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, defending Super Bowl champions, the Pittsburg Steelers take on the Denver Broncos tonight on Monday Night Football on ESPN. Even though this signature event is now seen on cable, which not everybody has, football remains the most watched sport in the United States and ratings so far this season are better than ever.

But the owners of the NFL's 32 teams say the good times are not as good as they may appear, one reason that they opted out of the current collective bargaining agreement two years before it was due to expire. The move puts labor relations back into the spotlight, along with the growing concern about the impact of the sport on the player's longtime health.

Standing at the center of both issues is DeMaurice Smith. He is the new - relatively new - executive director of the NFL Players Association, which negotiates on behalf of current and former NFL players. He's only the fourth leader in the association's 41-year history succeeding Gene Upshaw, who died suddenly last year, only days after having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

DeMaurice Smith is with us now in our Washington, D.C. studio for a newsmaker interview.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. DEMAURICE SMITH: Oh thank you and it's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: Can I call you Dee?

Mr. SMITH: Please do.

MARTIN: So I'm going to ask the question that is I'm sure on the minds of many, many fans and, of course, many of the players: Do you believe you'll be able to come to a new agreement? There's already talk of a lockout and possibility of a strike. Of course, the last strike in 1987 was very traumatic for the players and for the union.

Mr. SMITH: Extremely.

MARTIN: So do you think you'll be able to come to an agreement?

Mr. SMITH: I'm hopeful and optimistic. I'm thrilled that the football today is still as vibrant, even more so than it was when I was a kid. So it does seem to me that any group of people - players, owners, union leaders - we can find some way to agree. I just think that the quicker we can sit down, understand what might be wrong with the current deal, fix anything that could be wrong - but let's make sure that we play football.

MARTIN: May I tell people a little bit about you? For those who don't know, you were selected for the post by the executive committee in March, despite the fact that you're not a former pro football player.

Mr. SMITH: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: In fact, I don't believe you played after high school.

Mr. SMITH: High school. High school.

MARTIN: Right. You're not a labor lawyer.

Mr. SMITH: Not.

MARTIN: You are well known in D.C. as a trial lawyer and former prosecutor. Why do you think you were chosen for this job?

Mr. SMITH: You know, you'll have to ask them. I think that they were surprised a little bit, about the approach for lawyers and people who for years represent big business, there is a very defined fundamental way in which business people approach your relationship with something like that National Football League.

So we spent a great deal of time talking about okay, how do you align your political interest? What has the union done over the last 25 years to build better stronger coalitions during times of labor peace, so that you are well prepared in the event of labor unrest?

When I talked to the players and said something as simple as what have you done to make sure that you're getting the best medical care? I was met with blank stares. What have you done over the last five to 10 years to increase your long-term pension as you go forward after football has ended? What's the strategy to do that? If you are going to face a lockout in - then two years, what have you done to analyze all of the various and collateral businesses that rely on this game in the same way that you rely upon it.

MARTIN: So you figure, you're a strong strategic thinker. You think they are attracted to that?

Mr. SMITH: Well, I think for years I've been fortunate enough to build a practice that was built around strategic thinking, preparing businesses, not only for the fights that they were currently in, but the fights that they knew that they might face five years down the road.

MARTIN: So, why did you want to do this job?

Mr. SMITH: Hmm. Job of a lifetime. I was working with the campaign and I thought that if the president won, maybe one thing that I could do is probably go back into the Department of Justice, that was really what was on my horizon. One day the phone rang and someone asked whether or not I'd be interested in adding my name to about three hundred people who were being considered for this position.

MARTIN: Three hundred?

Mr. SMITH: Yeah, about three hundred.

MARIN: Wow.

Mr. SMITH: But I had one overarching goal. I thought that if I could add value and engage the players in a conversation about that value - I wanted to leave it up to them about type of leader they wanted. I did not play professional sports, was not an agent, was not a labor lawyer, but my question to them was if you believe that your fundamental challenge is how to structure yourself, not only as players, but businessmen in the business of football, if that's the direction that you want to go, then let's get there together.

MARTIN: And that was going to be my next question, which is what do you see as your role�

Mr. SMITH: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: �now? And one of the reasons I ask is that there were those who thought your predecessor, Gene Upshaw - very highly regarded man, lot of affection for him, of course, was in the job for a long time. But there were those who thought that he had become too accommodating to management, although it has to be said that average salaries rose tremendously under his watch up to 1.4 million average, and the owners are now complaining that the players are getting too big of a share of revenue from the league. So, how do you see your role?

Mr. SMITH: My role - various roles, and - but at the end of the day it is one, where you have to engage in a coordinated strategy. I want our union to be judged on the basis of how well will our men and their families be five years after football is over? If we do a good job of using their days as football players as a platform for them to do something else�

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SMITH: �my role is to do my best to try to make those things happen.

MARTIN: A number of non-sports fans may first have noticed you when you spoke out on the whole question of Rush Limbaugh, the radio personality, who was said to have an ownership interest in the St. Louis Rams, and you spoke out on behalf - I assume on behalf of players, who took issue with that and felt that he was not an appropriate choice. And I was just curious how your representation played into your decision to speak out on that.

Mr. SMITH: You know, that choice to say something was very easy because I represent the players. A number of players had come out and made statements, and the reality is I didn't take a statement for him, did not take a statement against him. The only thing I said in my statement was I believe that sport is at its best when it brings us together. I think that's the beauty of sports.

MARTIN: So, is your point that you felt that he was a divisive figure, and therefore, would not represent the inclusiveness, which you feel is the ideal?

Mr. SMITH: No. My point was in the same way that I think sport is at its best when it brings us together, I am happy when our players embrace that. And I want our players to feel comfortable talking about that. You know, at times guys will come up to me and say, well, Dee, you know, I was thinking about saying something about that, but I wasn't sure whether it was my place. What do you mean it's not your place? So that statement to them was really me not asking people to come out and say anything. They already had. It was their union leader telling them that I am always going to be comfortable, and content and happy, when you stand up as a man, as a businessman, in the business of football. That's what I want you to do.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with DeMaurice Smith. He is the new, relatively new, executive director of the NFL Players Association. We are talking about current issues in football, whether there will be a lockout, safety issues, and whatever else is on his mind.

A current issue, a very current issue, in football is the whole question of the safety of the game. A congressional hearing was conducted at the end of October that talked a lot about head injuries and new findings that suggest that former players are suffering from head injuries at a vastly higher rate than the rest of the population of men their age. There was a study commissioned by the NFL reporting that Alzheimer's disease or similar memory-related diseases appear to have been diagnosed in League's former players, vastly more often than in the national population. And of course, this has caused a lot of comment from people who are interested and concerned about the sport. One is they say they feel that the NFL has ignored similar research in the past, and they feel it's - they're downplaying it now. What do you think is your responsibility in this?

Mr. SMITH: To get the answer right. I love the fact that any new study that might shed light on this issue is important, but the first thing that we need to do is to make sure that we take stock and embrace all of the medical literature leading up to now.

MARTIN: But what if it emerges that the sport is just inherently dangerous, that even if you do everything right - one member of Congress, Linda Sanchez of California, at the House Judiciary Committee hearing on this issue, made the comparison to tobacco. And tobacco is a legal product, which even if used absolutely correctly is dangerous. What if it emerges that the sport is inherently dangerous? What do you do then? There's nothing you can do really to minimize injury to the players.

Mr. SMITH: Well, there are a number of things that you can do once you've suffered a concussion to understand the first responders' necessary treatment. And that is something frankly that the National Football League and the players have gotten right over the last few years. I think where we have not done as good a job as we can is recognizing how soon can that player come back from that injury, whether there should be uniform standards to measure and to analyze when that player can come back and the effect of multiple concussions on the same player in a relatively short career.

MARTIN: But it speaks to the larger questions: What if we come to a place where people start to say it's not just ethical to watch this because there's - the inherent risks are just too great for entertainment?

Mr. SMITH: You know, I'm not�

MARTIN: Is that possible?

Mr. SMITH: I'm not sure it is because we have a number of sports that people engage in everyday that I think everybody, or certain people would say well, you know, that's inherently dangerous. But if you look at the sport of boxing, that sport has changed dramatically from 30 years ago, when you and I used to watch, you know, 15 rounders that were just brutal matches. Well, you know, boxing did things like cutting the amount of rounds. It gave doctors more discretion on the ring. So, what you did see was the change in the regulation or the monitoring of the sport based upon the medical literature that was being evaluated at the time.

MARTIN: So, what are you looking at though? What is a fruitful area? One concern that some people have is that the interest of team doctors are inherently in conflict with the interest of players, that perhaps there should be some independent body evaluating whether a player goes back into play after a concussion and when.

Mr. SMITH: I think that is something to look at. I think that learning more from the team doctors about this issue is something to look at. But I do know two things: Embracing those studies and understanding what it means for the football player now is the first thing we have to do. But equally important, we know that the National Football League keeps and has aggregate medical data that they have collected over a number of years on the people who play this sport at the professional level.

I think that that aggregate medical data should be medical data that is shared with the players. I don't know what will happen in the future, what people will find, but I do know that we will only get the right answer in the future if we're able to ask the right questions now based upon the right information.

MARTIN: I want to mention that you spoke to this issue at some length when you testified at the committee hearing at the House Judiciary Committee hearing, and we'll have a link to your testimony on our Web site if people want to look further at what it is that you had to say. Finally, you grew up in Washington, D.C. You are by birth, by inheritance and apparently by choice a Redskins fan still. What you're going to do? I mean�

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: �first of all, your team is not doing particularly well. Secondly, I was at a dinner once where I sat near General Colin Powell when he was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, of course, when you play the service anthem, you know, you've have to rise for the service - for the branch of service in which you served. So, he had to stand for all of them. So, what are you going to do now? You - what happens now as a fan? What's your fan - what are you going to do as your fan thing?

Mr. SMITH: Well, the first thing I do is I root for all the players, equally.

MARTIN: So you must lose your voice a lot?

Mr. SMITH: A lot, a lot. You know�

MARTIN: And you must be not really fun to be at a game with because you're yelling all the time.

Mr. SMITH: All the time. You know, look, I was down on the field watching Kansas City get their win against the Redskins. And yeah, it was a loss for my home team but it was a win for Mike Vrabel, who sits on our executive committee, and Matt Castle and those guys. It has made the job easier because no matter what happens at the end of the game there's always somebody that I can root for.

MARTIN: Dee Smith is the executive director of the NFL Players Association. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Dee, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. SMITH: It was a pleasure now and I look forward to being back.

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