MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Football is the most watched sport in the United States, and many people believe the most popular. But concerns about the safety of the game are raising questions about everything from how it's played to whether we should even watch. In just a few minutes we are going to speak with some youth coaches about how they are changing the way they teach the game to kids.
But first, we turn to the professionals. DeMaurice Smith is the head of the NFL Players Association. He's spending the off-season dealing with the fallout from the so-called bounty scandal. The league suspended several players it says were paid to knock opponents out of games. That's a ruling the NFLPA has been fighting ever since.
The union has also been tangled up in a series of lawsuits against the league, against the coaches' union, and even in disputes with former players. And then there was the shocking suicide of former All Pro linebacker Junior Seau, which brought back so many of the questions about safety and the long-term health of players that we're talking about today.
We're pleased to have DeMaurice Smith with us. Thanks so much for joining us. And I do want to say we extended an invitation to NFL commissioner Roger Godell. He wasn't able to join us today but we hope he will do so in the future. DeMaurice Smith, thanks for coming.
DEMAURICE SMITH: A pleasure.
MARTIN: Let's talk about the bounty scandal that's gotten so much attention this year. Four current and former members of the New Orleans Saints were suspended from the league for what the NFL says was a system where the players were paid or paid each other to knock opponents out of the game. I just wanted to ask, first of all, before we get into what you've concluded - I just want to know, what was your first reaction when you heard this?
SMITH: Well, my first reaction was there are a number of players on that team that obviously are leaders in our organization. When we hear allegations like that we consider them to be extremely serious, not only as it relates to a player discipline issue, but on the much larger issue of player health and safety.
We've done a tremendous amount of work over the last four years. I think we've honestly changed the paradigm of football over the last few years with respect to health and safety. So when we heard these allegations, it's so inconsistent with our belief that it's our job to protect the players...
MARTIN: So what's your response to the charges? You said the commissioner doesn't have the authority to suspend the players, only an arbitrator does, but just based on the evidence that's been presented so far, they say that they have pay lists with players' names attached to it.
If an arbitrator had made this decision, let's just say - this is hypothetical, I realize - would a suspension be appropriate?
SMITH: You know, I'm never going to guess about what an arbitrator's going to do. You can imagine. I've been in a courtroom - too many courtrooms. The real issue is just that, the evidence. And our concern from the beginning of this - the Players Association has been waiting for evidence of what exactly, specifically did these players do.
And asking just a simple question: If there is specific evidence that these four players either took money or put money specifically on the head of another player in order to specifically injure that player, that's information that I want to see. That's information that the players want to see.
MARTIN: And you've never seen it?
SMITH: We haven't. So it is at its core a question about not only the existence of the evidence but the strength of the evidence.
MARTIN: You've never seen the physical evidence yourself, these lists that we have been told exist? You've never seen them?
SMITH: I have not seen anything where these four players have been identified that on a specific day, that they pledged a specific amount of money to injure a specific person or engage in a course of conduct that was designed to specifically injure a person in an inappropriate way.
Look, when I got this job, the head of the NFL's Concussion Committee was a rheumatologist. We took steps. We brought information to Congress. We made changes during the course of the collective bargaining agreement. We've changed the way in which players are evaluated for concussions. We've made a lot of strides in holding doctors accountable for the way in which they prescribe medication to our players.
The idea that any player or any coach would specifically engage in a course of conduct to deliberately hurt someone is an anathema to us.
MARTIN: But you don't think it happened. I guess what I'm asking is, you don't believe that this occurred?
SMITH: I haven't seen the evidence that it has occurred. And it seems to me that when it comes to the issue of the health and safety of our players, both the National Football League and the players' union should be in a world where if there is this evidence, let's make the process transparent.
Let's make sure that we're punishing the right people for the right or the wrong conduct. But why is there such an insistence on behalf of the league to keep whatever evidence they believe they have secret? I don't understand it.
MARTIN: You've made the case here that you're fighting to get the suspensions overturned, and in other venues when you've talked about this, you're still fighting to get the suspensions overturned. But there are still some players who've been quoted as saying they don't think you're fighting hard enough to look out for the players who were targeted. I'd just like to ask, you know, how you respond to that.
SMITH: We've been in touch with all four players and we're in touch with the larger group of players that were identified by the league as being suspected of this activity. We've kept them apprised of the ideas or the legal strategies to fight for them. I've spoken to all of them personally and we continue to be aggressive in the manner in which we protect our players.
MARTIN: But don't you have a responsibility to the players, if this is true, who were targeted, to protect their health and safety as well? I mean, isn't that really your primary...
SMITH: I represent both of them and we represent both of them.
But taking a position where we hold the league accountable to what evidence exists and protecting the larger group of players who may have been targeted, those things are not mutually exclusive. We have an obligation to make the game safer, but in instances where we...
MARTIN: How could they not be mutually exclusive unless you're arguing that the league motivated these players to act in this fashion?
SMITH: It, one, assumes that the allegations are true. So why would we ever want to assume that the allegations are true? What we have simply asked is if there is proof of the allegations, turn it over. And with respect to if there are people who believe that we are not fighting hard enough, there isn't a player in the National Football League who doesn't have my telephone number. Give me a call.
MARTIN: I'm speaking with DeMaurice Smith. He is the head of the NFLPA. That's the professional football players' union. You know, obviously, as you've just said, this all comes back to safety. And when we first spoke after you first took this position as the head of the players' union, I asked you whether you can envision a scenario where we would just deem that it's just not ethical to participate in this because the game can't be made safe.
And you said at the time that this is not a gladiator sport, that the object is not to hurt someone. The object is to gain territory. Do you still believe that?
SMITH: I do. Because it is a hard game, it is a physical game, but it is a game that has rules. And is it a game that we can constantly make safer? Yes. One, we have done things, I believe, to change the paradigm of football. And one of those things means removing the quote-unquote football exception to everything.
There shouldn't be a football exception with respect to how a doctor treats a player. He should treat a player as a patient. We should remove anything like a football exception where bad conduct is justified, glorified, or accepted. We should do a better job of researching and providing our resources towards trying to make the game safer.
I'm not willing to say that it is a sport that cannot be made safe. What I am, and fervently believe - over the last four years have we done things in football to make the game safer for our players? Yes. But that has only come by the dedicated effort of the players themselves to change the culture and the paradigm of football.
MARTIN: What is your stance towards these lawsuits? Is the association taking a position vis a vis these suits?
SMITH: The association - we have talked to a number of the players who were involved. We certainly have been apprised and read the cases as they are filed. As an official position, we haven't taken a stance. But it is important to admit that the league has done a much better job lately than it has done previously.
We were obviously one of the groups that came after the league very hard about their stance on trying to hide certain studies two and three years ago. We were the people who took that issue to Congress. We were the ones who made a demand that they actually have competent doctors leading their concussion committee. We formed our own concussion committee because we wanted to be in a world where we could use our own resources to either look at ways to make the game safer from a contact standpoint, but also in a way that we could research and take a look at issues that might be important to current and former players.
Does that mean that we've arrived? No. But it does mean that the players of the National Football League believe that it's a game that can be made safer and we will do whatever we can to do that.
MARTIN: After years of negotiations, you did, you know, achieve an agreement. But now it seems that there isn't much love lost between you and the league. It seems from the outside that things have gotten particularly acrimonious lately. You recently called the league a cartel.
Do you agree that things are acrimonious? And what's the source of that?
SMITH: We're a labor union. We represent the people who get their knees busted, their fingers broken and their heads concussed. The league is certainly run by owners. They're management. Are there issues, fundamental issues, about labor and management that we're never going to agree on? No. Of course there are.
I believe that what you are seeing is perhaps a stage, perhaps a progression, for our listeners out there...
MARTIN: So you feel this is just a normal and appropriate part of your representation of your members?
SMITH: A weak union is one that can't stand up for its constituents and can't fight. A strong union is one that can stand up for its constituents and fight. Does that mean there has to be fights? No. But it does mean that if there are issues that we disagree with, that you do have strong bodies that are able to aggressively represent our interest.
If I had to sacrifice what is in the best interest of our players for peace and harmony, I'd walk away.
MARTIN: I think this conversation about safety is going to be an ongoing one.
SMITH: It should.
MARTIN: Just on the question of whether you feel that the game is being made safer or at least safe enough so that people with ethical concerns that they are participating in something that is more harmful than is worth it to a human being can watch it - do you think you and the league are on the same page that you're moving in the right direction?
SMITH: Yes, I do. We made an affirmative decision that the players weren't going to have two-a-day practices anymore, not because we wanted to have our players off, but because all of the medical data shows that if you want to make a significant change in the management of potential concussions, what you do is you decrease the exposure to head-to-head or head-to-ground contact.
So the reason that we've made fundamental changes in practice under the new CBA is a health and safety issue.
MARTIN: Speaking of the future, would you let your son play?
SMITH: I would. If I was convinced that his coach had received the right training, that they were being monitored in the right way, that people were making good decisions about teaching kids good skills, not only about the game of football, but what it teaches you about honor and sacrifice and teamwork, of course I would.
MARTIN: DeMaurice Smith is the executive director of the NFL Players Association. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.
DeMaurice Smith, thanks so much for speaking with us once again.
SMITH: Thank you very much, Michel.
MARTIN: And once again, we have reached out to the commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell. We hope he'll be joining us soon.
We'd like you to stay with us as we continue our conversation about football and safety. Coming up, we're going to speak with a youth coach and high school coach about how they are rethinking the game, if they are. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.