During a break between training camp visits, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith sat down with SI.com recently in San Diego to discuss the state of the game and the major issues confronting it. In a 45-minute conversation, Smith said, among other things, the players "reserve the right to seek any relief that we believe is appropriate" if it's shown that the owners have created an unsafe working environment by using replacement referees, and that long-term chronic pain could be the next major issue on the horizon. Following is a text of the conversation:
We constantly preach to our players to see the field, and that doesn't just mean things that are transpiring on the football field. It means see where you are in the game and in the business of football. On the players side we're at a juncture now where, yes, we've made strides in player safety. But there are people out there wondering whether football is safe for their kids to play.
We have 2,500 or so former players who have filed lawsuits against the National Football League, and you've got 130 of the most well-trained referees not doing what they're supposed to be doing, and you still have NFL owners in California trying to pass legislation that would restrict players' abilities to get workers' compensation -- on top of the fact that the league continues to fight us on about 3,000 workers' comp cases. By any measure you would have to come to a conclusion that those are monumental issues that affect not only the game that we love, but also the business that we are in. Those are the things that we believe that vision and leadership must get us through.
Obviously the game is going to speed up, the demand on the referees increase, the physical strain on our players increases exponentially, and you're facing a situation where the league has made an affirmative decision to remove the people that we consider to be the first responders to safety on the field. It's rather obvious that the only people on the field who are not competing, who remain objective to enforce the rules, to ensure that the players remain safe, are the referees. And to make matters worse, there are really three fundamental facts that are inescapable.
One, the players and the league have made tremendous strides in trying to make the game safer over the last three years. The second fact is, at the players' urging, the National Football League last year gave the referees more power to spot and deal with a concussed or injured player. The third inescapable fact is, over the last 20 years the league has done everything to maintain an experienced referee corps.
When you look at the referees combined, you're talking about nearly 1,500 years of NFL experience. The National Football League puts such an emphasis on experience that in normal situations they
Negotiation by delegation does not work. We learned through the course of our negotiations that it took owners being involved in the negotiations for us to reach a deal. The players on the field are members of a team where every one of our owners want to win. The owners have invested in the players, and each and every owner loves what keeps the National Football League unique among sports. And it's two things, on any given Sunday a team could win; and every game matters. So my question to the owners is, because those two things are true, why would they ever want to leave the game in critical moments in the hands of referees that they
We went through a number of questions and answers in the offseason given the rules about players during Phase 1 of offseason workout not allowing a ball to be used on the field, and we did that because we knew that certain teams would put pressure on players during the offseason to come into the facility to run plays. The only way that we knew that we could truly give our players time off is by restricting the teams from actually using a ball during offseason workouts.
Now, obviously some skill-position players were upset about that, but the balance of our players like the rule because they knew it wouldn't force them or put them in a position to voluntarily give up something that we fought hard to get. Unfortunately, we have to deal with a world where we have to make rules assuming that teams would do whatever they can to violate the rules. Unfortunately, that's the history that we deal with. We make rules that are designed to be cheat proof.
But we believe there are only, in broad categories, two fundamental things that the league has to agree to for us to get to a stage of HGH testing. One is to make sure we have a clear, transparent and scientifically valid standard against which our players will be adjudicated; and second that there is an independent arbitration system for players to challenge any finding against them, and an independent arbitration system to handle any appeal of commissioner discipline.
I know that people like to view issues in isolation, but the reality of it is neither the league nor the players view any issue in isolation. The collective bargaining agreement means that no issue is viewed in isolation.
Instead of focusing on what is the current state of our relationship, I think the right focus is what is the current state of our game that relies on the passion and love of the fans for our growth. It seems to me where there is a commonality of interest, those are the things upon which we should be working together so when it comes to issues of health and safety, compensating players for injuries that they sustained at work, making access to workman's comp easier rather than harder, and ensuring that the right people are on the field when it comes to protecting the players in the game that we all love, those are the issues that any educated or reasonable person should know we should be working together on.
We are not in the business of a blood sport. The fans who love our game are not bloodthirsty. They want to see the best athletes in the world competing in the best game in the world under circumstances that are as safe as they would want for their own son and for their own daughter.
With respect to issues coming down the line, the big issues deal with how we employ our resources to better understand how we can make our game safer. For example, the union recently submitted RFPs [request for proposals] to some of the most well known medical research centers in the country, where we asked them to come up with analysis and treatment protocols for how to make our game safer. We did that because our vision and our leadership led us to a conclusion that we may not have the best answers right now for what we need to make our game safer and better.
We received a number of tremendous responses from these institutions, and over the next few months we'll work with the National Football League and with accomplished neuroscientists and physicians to come up with the best programs to make our game safer and better for everyone for the next decade. We did that because we thought that was the right way to do it. As we look at issues coming down the road on CTE, we believe that we're putting ourselves in the right position to make the right decisions going forward.
One or our most critical issues on the horizon will be that of chronic pain, and that may be a bigger issue than concussions. Intrinsic in that issue of chronic pain is not only how you treat it -- it raises all of the issues regarding the use of painkillers -- but it also obviously raises issues of rest, time off and prevention.
I do know one thing, if we don't engage in the right process of not being afraid of hard questions and trying to embrace the right answers, we do face the possibility of getting the answers wrong when every one of our fans needs us to get the answers right.