DeMaurice Smith Interview
D.C. attorney DeMaurice F. Smith is one of three finalists to succeed the late Gene Upshaw as executive director of the NFL Players Association.
The District native, a partner at the firm Patton Boggs, spoke at length to The Washington Post in a recent interview, his first public comments about his union candidacy.
Smith is an unabashed Washington Redskins fan who was born in D.C., grew up in Glenarden and attended Riverdale Baptist High School. His father, the son of a sharecropper preacher, served in the Marines and later worked at the Department of Commerce. His mother was a nurse at Freedmen's Hospital (now Howard University Hospital) and then worked at the National Institutes of Health.
He ran track at Cedarville University, a 3,000-student Baptist college in southwestern Ohio, and then went to law school at the University of Virginia. Smith was a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office in D.C. for 10 years. He served as counsel to Eric Holder, then the deputy U.S. attorney general and now the attorney general. He served on the board of directors of the foundation formed by former Redskins players Charles Mann and Art Monk.
A story is to appear in Wednesday's print edition of the paper.
Here are extensive excerpts from the interview, conducted while sitting in the lobby of a D.C. hotel...
Q: How do you convince the players that a non-former player can do the job?
A: "I'll start where I started with the players. I look at the NFLPA as a roughly $3 billion corporation that has an excellent working relationship with a much larger company called the NFL. They both need each other. They both are involved in the greatest game in the world. But on the human side, you're dealing with 1,700 players who physically and emotionally and mentally make a decision to play what I also believe is the toughest game in the world.
"From both a corporate aspect and a human aspect, I look at my background in business and law--media, corporate boardrooms, negotiating high-stakes contracts, enforcing those contracts either through negotiation or in a courtroom, looking at whether or not those business relationships are those that are governed by a set of business rules or Congressional rules--[as] the avenues of intersection between what I have done for my entire career and those same intersection points that lie for a company or corporation, an organization like the NFL and NFLPA. There's natural intersections all over the place.
"I guess the last piece of it is, I'm a fan. I think I have the ability of truly enjoying the sport just like every fan. But the perspective of managing, running, protecting, furthering a business like the corporate partner that I am--those are the things where I find natural intersections between what I do and what I enjoy. And when I look at this opportunity to take the knowledge, the expertise and the passion of what I do for a living and combine it with something as emotionally fulfilling and enjoyable as professional football, I'm not sure there could be any other job that could match those two things better than this one.
"What I told the players the first time I met them was if I didn't think that I was both incredibly prepared to do this job or the right person to do this job, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't have done it. I've got a great family. I've got a great job... at a great law firm. There are all sorts of things that I enjoy. But this opportunity was one of those things that for the pastors that come from the other side of my family, they call their march to their profession a calling. In many different ways, this to me has been a calling."
Q: When you became aware of the search, did you say to yourself that you should be a candidate?
A: "No. I'll be dead honest with you.
"... My dad and I are avid Redskin fans, which I always say is for good and for bad. For the last few years, it's been mostly bad. About two years ago, we were watching a Redskin game and a story came up about Art Monk, Charles Mann, and of course I'm connected with their foundation. We started talking about things like retired players and their salaries, their health care. I don't know if you saw the report that came around the same time... on Earl Campbell. I think it was during a playoff game because I know that one of the guest commentators was Emmitt Smith, and they showed this short documentary about Earl Campbell being helped out of bed, the medical problems that he has, the struggles that he does. Earl Campbell was a guy that I grew up watching.
"... In my mind, Earl Campbell was the freight train that you watched run over, around, on top of, through people. And to watch that person, you know, 10, 15, 20 years later in that story is something I'll never forget because it does have a way of serving as a microcosm about a great many things. We get to enjoy a game like that, and I played as a boy. You can watch it as a fan. But everybody gets older. You grow up. All of a sudden, you're watching the hero of your youth and in the same way that you're watching his mortality path, it mirrors yours. That was a conversation that my dad and I started off... and continued to have for a number of years: What happens to these guys after they stop playing? What kind of person makes a decision to devote themselves to this type of game where they don't have a guaranteed contract? What kind of life is it where one day you have to wake up and go tell your family you've been traded to another team?
"... So I don't know if all of those things were things that conspired to get me thinking about this in a way.... But to answer your question, no, when Mr. Upshaw passed, my first thought was, 'Good gracious, what a tremendous loss of leadership.' At the same time, I'll be dead honest with you, thinking about it every now and then--that's got to be just one of the coolest jobs on the planet. Absolutely. Absolutely. But no, I never thought about me being a candidate for that at all when he passed away, and primarily because I'm not sure anybody looks at such a brilliant dream and thinks about it like it's an automatic reality."
Q: Did you have to be convinced to be a candidate when you were contacted?
A: "No. Absolutely not. The humble answer would be that I hemmed and hawed.
"I will say one of the first comments I had when I talked to the search committee was, 'Are you sure you have the right guy?' But I'll tell you what they told me: There are a number of people who are being considered for the search primarily because they weren't people who were intimately connected to sports. The idea that you could have different perspectives, different expertise, to look at a person who could bring other aspects of business to this business, was something that certainly struck me immediately as being absolutely right. The first time we chatted was probably about an hour and a half. It became more of a surprise, a pleasant surprise, but more of a surprise to me about how many aspects of my previous life and my career really served as natural intersections for this business.
"And then the next step for me was, 'Okay, I certainly have an interest.' The next step that I did was basically to sit back and ask myself a question: Is this a job that you can do? Do you have the right skill sets? The right expertise? Do you know how to build the right team? And, simply, that's what we did. We sat down. I found the smartest group of experts that I can find. It's what, I think, any lawyer does when they're confronted with a business challenge, whether it's a lawsuit, whether it's a merger and acquisition, whether you're fighting a hostile takeover, whether or not you have a matter that's pending up on Capitol Hill. There isn't a businessperson, a successful businessperson, in the country who doesn't approach it the same way. You find the individuals who are at the top of their game for that aspect of that business, and you bring them together. You ask two separate questions: One, is this something we can understand? And second, what's the plan?
"That's it. And what we did was, I pulled together a team of about 15 and we decided, 'Okay, looking at this from a business perspective, what is it? How does it work? How can it be run better? And when it comes to the individuals who make up the membership of the NFLPA, both past and present, what is the best plan for their interest?' And at the end of the day, we ended up writing a substantial business plan that we all decided we'd call a 'Playbook.' It's called, 'An Enterprise Philosophy to Maximize the Business and Political Interest of the NFLPA.' That is the title."
Q: What has the union done well? What does it need to do better?
A: "Under Mr. Upshaw's leadership, I think it has done a tremendous job of growing with the sport of football. It is a multi-billion-dollar sport now. I think if you had to ask the athletes of the past, especially prior to the AFL-NFL merger, whether or not this would be a billion-dollar enterprise that would be played not only in the United States but also in other countries, whether you'd have 32 teams, whether there would be television contracts that generated in excess of $3 billion a year, I think if you had to ask people that question in 1960, 1961--come on, absolutely not. It grew not only because of the vision of people like Mr. Rozelle, Mr. Tagliabue, Mr. Goodell, but it also grew really on the backs, legs and shoulders of the people who play that game. And through tremendous effort of Mr. Upshaw, it also grew because he made the decision that in the same way this was a tremendous game, it was also a tremendous business. And having the vision to both partner, fight, strategize, compromise and do battle on some days and shake hands on other days with the NFL, through both his vision and hard work, they grew this game. And you think about the history of that game and people like Sammy Baugh, a game where people made $6,000 during a season and sold cars during the offseason to make ends meet, they grew this game into one of the most tremendous businesses in America--in the world.
"I think that's something that they've done extremely well. Extremely well. I think that issues like sharing revenue, partnerships with the NFL, having a vision where [while] it might be a competitive relationship at times and sometimes contentious, it doesn't have to be antagonistic--those are things that they've done extremely well.
"Are there opportunities to do things better? Absolutely. It seems to be that--I've told the players this; I don't have any problem telling you this--I think they have a moral obligation to the retired players.
"I think the good news is that while there is a moral obligation, I also believe that there is a business obligation, or business justification, to the retired players as well. Every fan's connection to this game is historical. Every person's connection to this game is historical. If you make a decision to go to a game the next Sunday, it's based upon the experience you had, for good or for bad, the previous Sunday. We live in a town where people will their tickets to each other. We live in a city where we still have the record for consecutive sellouts. The great thing about this team, like any other team, is people have a connection and it's part of the fabric of families and their community. I think of Harold McLinton and Roy Jefferson and Pat Fischer. Those are Redskins. They don't play any more, but they're Redskins and it seems to me that in the same way that fans have that connection to the game, players have to have that connection to the people who played before them. And teams in the NFL need to have a connection with the people that played before them.
"I love the way baseball does it. Baseball has a tremendous connection with history. And I think that is something that is both natural and, at the same time, cultivated. It's important to cultivate those things that connect you with the fabric of history. We do it when we watch a president get sworn in at an inauguration. It's exactly the same thing. You engage in the rituals and the traditions--why? Because it inextricably connects you with the past, because we know that those things in the past are the things that will sustain us in the future.
"So are there things that can be done better? Absolutely. And I think that connection to this game's history will define just how well of a job we do for this game's future."
Q: How difficult is the labor situation, especially for an outsider?
A: "I actually think it will be easier for a person stepping in from the outside. I mean, look, the greatest assets this game has--one, you've got 1,700 of the best athletes in the world. You have a strong fan base where people want to see their games played. You have cities, and traditional cities, that have held football teams for a number of years. You have television contracts that are set in place. So unlike another business model--for example, take cars, the U.S. car, where you don't know if people are going to buy American cars tomorrow. You don't know if Ford or G.M. or Chrysler are going to be the same viable companies that they were 30 years ago.
"I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the NFL as a business and the NFLPA both have a business model and a market and a consumption base and a constituency and a labor force that is going to be here tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the next day. So, you know, an executive who has problems is the guy like in today's Wall Street Journal: 'Automaker Bankruptcy Looms.' The tough question for the person who's walking in to be the CEO of one of the automakers is, 'Am I gonna have an automaker tomorrow?' That's not a problem with the NFL. So I think that when you look at issues like this collective bargaining agreement, issues like a lockout--are they significant? Absolutely. Is it going to have a major impact on the way in which this game is played from a business standpoint? Absolutely.
"But problems are just problems of degree. Are we going to have football? Absolutely. Is Washington going to have a team? Absolutely. Are we going to the Super Bowl next year? Absolutely.
"So I look at problems not as if they are static problems. It is a question of degree. So it seems to me that for a person from the outside, there are a couple of benefits in addition to that. The NFLPA has had the luxury of extremely strong and vibrant leadership for a number of years. Mr. Upshaw might be gone, but his legacy is one that will never leave that organization. It has a tremendous general counsel and acting interim director. It has strong staff. Its outside resources are the same as in the past. It's done a tremendous job with their labor negotiating team. That team is in place. So the job, it seems to me, for the NFLPA is: What is the next level of this game? And the best way to accomplish that goal, it seems to me, is to be blessed with the resources you have but combine it with a vision for a way in which you can increase the things you do and try to make them better--utilize new resources and new partnerships, bring new energy and new resources. But let's not kid ourselves: The foundation of this game is the foundation of this game, and the foundation of that NFLPA organization is going to be the foundation of that organization. And it seems to me that there is nothing better than to take new ideas, new leadership, and try to make things better."
Q: What about your background?
A: "Born in D.C. at the old Providence Hospital. My mother was a nurse at Freedmen's Hospital. My dad was a government worker at the Department of Commerce for 30 years. My mother worked at NIH after that for another 30 years. Lived in the city. Grew up in Prince George's County. Went to a local high school, Riverdale Baptist. And other than being away to school, I have always been here. Coached, up until last year, every sport my kids play. I still coach basketball, still coach baseball for my son. I coach basketball for my son and daughter. I was a prosecutor here at the U.S. attorney's office for 10 years, deputy chief of the violent crimes section for a couple of years. I was a counsel to who is now the current attorney general, Eric Holder. We're still great friends. He tends to root for New York teams. I tend to root for the right teams.
"My story is, I have been blessed with great jobs, great opportunities. I have been fortunate enough to love virtually everything I've ever done. And at the same time, to be blessed with a great family. My dad was the son of a sharecropper preacher. He'll tell you that the best job he ever had was one that he still has. He was in the Marine Corps. They never leave the Marine Corps. And that philosophy was, 'Look, it is not the situation that you are in that defines who you are. It's how you handle that situation.' And like anybody else from this area or anywhere else, hard work, do good in school--if you don't do well in school, you don't play. It's a message that I preach to my kids every day. But from my background, I look at my parents. They're still my heroes. You can't separate who you are--whether it's in school, on the field--from anything that you do. Conduct is a primary consideration in our household, as it was in mine, because those are the things that people look to to make decisions about what kind of person you are, what kind of character you have, whether or not you can handle the job, whether or not you will crack under pressure. I'm just a man, just a dad, just a guy, just a lawyer."
Q: How would you describe your athletic career?
A: "Not nearly as good as my son and daughter. They are blessed with being a heck of a lot faster than me, much better jump shot, much better game skills. They're probably less of a smart aleck which, again, is very good. But I ran track in college. I was lucky enough to run track. I was an average football player [in high school]. My incredible height, I decided not to play [basketball] to give teams a fair opportunity at the game. You can't just dominate things. You try to allow other people to play.
"I spoke at the 7th Circuit judicial conference I guess about four months ago and took a little bit of a question and answer afterward, and we were talking about primarily how do we get more kids involved in things like the law. How do you approach this issue especially in our community, African-American men? What do we do? How do we do a better job of keeping kids in school, getting them into college, getting them to graduate from college and all of the things that are near and dear to my heart of being a good father, a good family man? Someone asked me--this issue of mentorship always comes up--and someone asked me: Who were your law school mentors, the people you looked up to? It kind of caught me by surprise because there are a number of lawyers, judges, who were influential in my development. But I told them that the people who mattered most to me, after my parents, have always been my coaches. And I was blessed with, at every level--whether it was pee-wee ball, baseball, high school football, college track--I was always blessed with great coaches. And it seems to me that there are so many things that you can learn from the person who not only has the role and responsibility of teaching you something... it's a person that cares about you being a better person tomorrow than you are today.
"And it seems to me that in the same way that the person who takes that job for the NFLPA not only has a CEO role, but that person also has an incredible fiduciary, coach-like responsibility to the people who make up that game. And it's not only the people who play now, but it's also the people who played yesterday and the people who are going to be retired players in the future. That is something that I look to as an incredible opportunity: How do you do and accomplish great things with respect to those players, both as former players, current players and someday, again, going-to-be-retired players? Because what I would want is a world in a model, a paradigm, where people came through their career as professional athletes the same way I came through my career as a high school and college athlete--an incredible opportunity, incredible opportunity, but also, then, taking that opportunity and using that opportunity as a platform to do even greater things. While I cannot imagine anything more thrilling than running through the tunnel at RFK, I would want every player playing football during the time when I'm executive director to come out of that experience saying there is no greater thrill than running through the tunnel, but that this opportunity taught me lessons and gave me a platform to do even greater things.
"Because look, I loved my life at 26 and 28. But there is nothing that I would do to trade my life at 45 for that. Because I'm a parent of older kids now. I have a different perspective on life. It's given me a greater opportunity to do things. I don't want any player to think that all of the things that make them, again, the best athlete in the world--the dedication, the drive, the sacrifice, the teamwork--all of those things are things that I want them to learn and hope that they grow in. But what would truly make me proud--and, I think, define the success of the executive director of the NFLPA--is, five years from now, let's take a look at those thousand players who played five years ago. Where are they now and what are they doing? I want those people to be, if they want, I want them to be on boards of major corporations because it seems to me that the financial troubles that we are in today result from things like greed and selfishness and not looking after the people who need your help and a lack of empathy. Well, what greater place to learn things like empathy and sacrifice and dedication than to play this great game and to take those things that you have learned, take the popularity that you have, the ability to get people to call you back, the ability to go up on Capitol Hill and tell people that you need to think about the person who lost his job or the person who can't make ends meet. It seems to me that if you can take all of those characteristics that they learn each and every day and the ways in which they challenge each other to be better, to listen to the greater angels of our being, all of those things are--I know it sounds kind of goofy--but those are the things that make communities better and our businesses better and the people around us better.
"So I don't want to be measured just by the things that we're able to do for the people while they're playing. It seems to me you want to be measured by how well you do that job to prepare them for... life."
Q: What led you back to D.C. after college and what led you to the law?
A: "I've never done anything to make my parents happier than giving them grandkids. So the thought of their grandkids not being here in the area is really not an option. I guess they could go with us somewhere. So I was always coming back here. What led me to the law? I knew when I was in junior high school that I wanted to be a lawyer.... One of the first trials that I remember reading about was... after we moved out of D.C., I grew up in Glenarden, Md. There was a famous case of a boy who had been arrested by two Prince George's County police officers. Nobody really knows what happened in a back room but... somehow he gets a hold of their weapon and kills both of them. As a relatively young boy, I remember that being such a polarizing, charged issue. The town in which I grew up was predominantly African-American and one of those first cities and counties in America in which there was a large exodus of upper middle-class African-American families moving into the suburbs. And being confronted with that case, to say it was polarizing would be an understatement. But it also was at the time of a dramatic change in the county on the demographic side.
"Terrence Johnson--I remember my dad and I and our whole family talking about that case.... It was a radically racially charged atmosphere. I went to a high school that was not very diverse at the time. So all of these things are swirling, and you have the microcosm of this trial. And I remember being fascinated about the trial. Somewhere around there, I just had this thought of, 'If there's anything I want to do, I want to be a lawyer when I grow up.' Of course, it was after being a Redskin, and I'm still waiting for that call. Mr. Cooke never made that call, so I'm still waiting for Mr. Snyder to make that call. I just knew. I just always sort of knew.
"There was a part of me that thought for a while that I was going to go into the ministry. So I graduated from high school and looked at smaller schools to play football. There was a small Baptist college in Ohio that everyone had to have a Bible minor. So I thought, 'Well, if I'm going to get the call, that's as good a place as any for the phone to ring.' So I went out there and ran track. The call to the pulpit never came, and after that it was law school."
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