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:
Q:As we prepare to open the 2012 season, what's on your mind?
A: The safety and health of our players, the health of the game, and challenges that we have on the horizon. From where we sit at the NFL Players Association, we have the luxury of always loving the game, but we're faced with obligations of looking out for our current players and soon to be former players and ways to make the game safer tomorrow while at the same time ensuring that it remains the great sport that it is. For us, we never look at issues in a microcosm. Each time we approach a season we enjoy the games just like our fans do, but we keep a pretty careful eye on what we've learned in the past, what we're going to learn presently and how do we prepare to make the game better for our players and fans in the future.
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.
Q: Can the Players Association do more to resolve the impasse between the NFL and its officials?
A: We have done a lot. I stay in touch with Scott Green from the Referees Association. I've met with the National Football League about the issue and made our concerns abundantly clear to them. We've been very public in saying that we believe on a scale of 1-10 the use of replacement referees in the preseason is a 12. That goes up to a 16 now that you're entering into the regular season.
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 only introduce a rookie referee into the league with a team of experienced officials. All three of those things are unassailable facts, so given those three facts why would anyone choose to break away from the one new referee with a team of experienced referees and go to a full slate of new referees? The only conclusion that I have is that the league cares more about money than it does about the experience of the referees as a vehicle to increase player safety.
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 ordinarily would never hire? I mean, If these referees were so credible, how come they hadn't hired them before the lockout?
Q:Is there any possibility of the players en masse withholding their services because of safety concerns with replacement officials?
A: In America it is the employer's obligation to provide as safe a working environment as possible. We believe that if the National Football League fails in that obligation we reserve the right to seek any relief that we believe is appropriate. The NFL has chosen to prevent the very officials that they have trained, championed and cultivated for decades to be on the field to protect players and -- by their own admission -- further our goal of enhanced safety. That is absurd on its face.
Q: The issue of amending the injured reserve rule, as well as pushing back the trade deadline, seemed like positive things. Why didn't they happen?
A: We are open to amending the IR [rule] based upon what we have heard from our Executive Committee and player leadership. However, the league tied the opportunity for more padded practices to acceptance of the short-term IR, [which would allow teams to bring back one player who had been put on injured reserve, rather than end his season]. We had certainly talked to a number of coaches and GMs who favored the short-term amendment, but we as players weren't willing to increase the exposure of our players to more injuries in exchange for a short-term IR program that only would go into effect if a player were injured in the first place.
Q: What's the drop-dead date for changes to be made this season?
A: Soon. I believe we have until (the middle of this week) to get something done.
Q:How many more padded practices did the league want?
A: They wanted to increase the window to provide for the padded practices that are currently allowed, and we're not willing to increase the window. (Editor's note: Basically the league wants to add another week for padded practices so that teams playing on Thursday night won't lose out on an opportunity for practicing in full gear. Typically teams don't practice in pads when playing on a Thursday night, because of the short turnaround from the previous week.)
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.
Q:Speaking of cheating, where is the union and the league regarding HGH?
A: The league recently informed us that the doctor that they selected to do the population study has not only withdrawn, but is not interested in coming back to do the population at all. We have made it clear to the league that they should either adopt or select one of our doctors to do the population study for HGH -- and interestingly, it is a doctor that has worked for the league before --in order to move the process forward.
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.
Q:When did you send this letter to the league?
A: Over a month ago. But even backing up before that, that's the letter that we sent after their doctor pulled himself out. We chose their doctor over four or five months ago to do the population study. He then withdrew and we sent them another letter saying, either get this guy to do it or pick one of our guys. That was the letter we sent out a month ago. The most recent thing we heard back was that their doctor still doesn't want to do it.
Q:Commissioner discipline is obviously a hot-button issue. Does your feeling regarding the need for neutral arbitration for appeals extend to issues beyond HGH testing?
Q:Is it fair to say there will be no HGH testing if you can't get some give-back on the commissioner's powers in appeal matters?
A: The only thing I would take issue with is the term "give-back". We look at it as collective bargaining. When we look at collective bargaining issues, there are issues that obviously are important to the employer and there are issues that are important to the employee. Collective bargaining is about finding the balance between those issues. We believe that maintaining the integrity of the game is very important, but we also believe that due process fairness is important not only to our players, but also to the integrity to the game.
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.
Q: What would be the ideal world for you in terms of the commissioner's authority?
A: The ideal world in the case of a drug policy, if a player believed that the league didn't abide by the correct procedures, or if a player believed that there was a scientific justification or a problem with the scientific analysis that resulted in his adjudication, is that that player could take it to a neutral arbitrator. If a player believed that after the commissioner imposed discipline that that discipline was not based on the facts, or if a player believed that that discipline was inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement, then that player could raise that issue to a neutral arbitrator, who would just simply rule.
Q:Are you speaking specifically to HGH?
A: Remember, HGH would be a part of the overall drug policy. So it wouldn't be an HGH carve-out.
Q:What about issues not related to the drug policy. How would the commissioner's powers to discipline look?
A: If a player believed that the punishment imposed by the commissioner was inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement or violated due process or was inconsistent with the facts that were presented to the commissioner, that player could appeal those issues to a neutral arbitrator selected by both the league and the players. That would be a due process right for the players.
Q:Isn't there already an appeals panel?
A: No. Right now there is a panel of three arbitrators that can review the decision by an independent arbitrator that we can take our case to. So, for example, when both Burbank, who's an independent arbitrator under our system, or [Shyam] Das, who would hear injury grievances, we appeal those decisions to a three-party appeals panel. That's separate to appealing a decision of the commissioner. What we would propose under the system is an appeal of the commissioner's imposition of disciple to a neutral arbitrator.
Q:Would you go forward with HGH testing without an agreement on neutral arbitration?
A: Having a neutral arbitrator is a critical component of our negotiations with the NFL when it comes to changes in the drug program.
Q:Everyone talks about your relationship with Commissioner Goodell. Do people make too much of it?
A: We have a good working relationship. Period. I'm not going to amplify on that at all. The reality of it is, we are a strong union who demonstrated that our players were going to sit together and were going to fight for a deal that was fair. I represent with our player leaders the players of the National Football League. Roger represents the owners of the National Football League. That means that we have two powerful constituencies that do not see eye to eye all the time.
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.
Q:Speaking of blood sport, there again is so much focus on players being injured in meaningless/preseason games. Is 18 regular-season games (and two fewer preseason games) on the horizon?
Q:What could you foresee?
A: If the league wants to make a proposal about decreasing the number of preseason games, we're ready to hear it. But I don't tie everyone's displeasure with the preseason schedule to 18 games.
Q: In summation, what are your thoughts on the state of the league, and what are the major issues on the horizon?
A: I do believe that both players and ownership are facing a period where vision and leadership will either make our game stronger going forward, or we will fail to make our game stronger going forward. The good news is you saw that owner leadership and player leadership during the last three years, and it led us to a state where we have a fair and balanced deal and the game continues to make steps that are better for our fans and better for our players. The challenge for our respective sides is whether or not we can employ the same vision and leadership to address the problems that we know are on the horizon.
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.