DeMaurice Smith discusses support system for Rice, due process, more
RENTON, Wash. -- On Monday, just as the Ray Rice video was released by TMZ, NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith was on a plane to Seattle, where he was to meet with the Seahawks players and help them decide their new player reps (Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, Zach Miller). Obviously, Smith was briefed on the Rice situation on his way from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to the Seahawks' facility a few miles away, and that's where I was able to sit down with him, after a long meeting with Seattle's players.
While it would have been nice to discuss the league in general, and player representation on the whole, the focus was obviously on what happened in the Rice situation. Our conversation started there, and then spun out into the ways in which violations of the league's various policies are handled.
SI.com: Let's get to the meat of this right away -- obviously, the video released by TMZ, and we've all seen what Ray Rice did to Janay Palmer, and I don't think "disgusting" is too strong a word. I wanted to get out of the way and let you make a statement on behalf of yourself, or the NFLPA, or however you want to do that.
DeMaurice Smith: I was one of the last people to see the video, because I was on a plane flying out at oh-dark-thirty this morning, and I saw the video when I landed. And yes, the video is disturbing. As a father, as a husband -- when you see something like that, it's jarring. It's disturbing. For our union and for our players, it's one of those things where you at least try to look at something positive. And that is the reminder how unacceptable any kind of violence, especially domestic violence, should be. It has no place in our lives, and certainly in our community. And that's where we are right now.
The video is really all the information I've seen. I did learn on the way over to the facility about Mr. Rice being released, and have not yet talked to [NFL Commissioner] Roger [Goodell] about any other discipline. I did hear that [Rice had been suspended], but I tend to rely on the commissioner and learning all the facts first-hand. That's what we'll do, and once we know what those facts are, that will dictate our next steps.
SI.com: How would the NFLPA respond if Ray Rice, or any other player in a similar situation, requested psychological help?
Smith: You know, that's where we start. And yes, there's an appeals process, and yes, there's always questions about what team he's going to be on. Whether he's been cut. How he's been disciplined, how many games. That tends to be the thing which drives the debate in the media world. Where we tend to start is, where is the young man right now, and what are his needs? What needs might he have with respect to his family? And so, in that respect ... one, I make it a point to never talk about any medical, emotional or psychological needs of any player. But one of the things we have done, and done more of in the last few years, is making sure that we address the underlying issues that may cause any number of these things to occur. And it's why we do believe in most instances that it's not just the punishment that's going to drive a world in which, hopefully, these things don't occur. It's going to be, how well do we educate people who are coming into the business of football? If they do have needs, how well do we address those needs? If they do need help, making sure that wherever they are in the country, we can get them the help they need.
SI.com: Because here's the problem, and it's the same thing with [Browns receiver] Josh Gordon -- [Ray Rice] can't go to the facility, he falls off the map, and this is a guy who may have a real issue, because we don't know if it's the first time or not. He's in a situation where he's sort of in the wind, and there's his wife, and what happens next? So, why is it that players in trouble for a variety of reasons are not able to avail themselves, and their spouses by proxy are not able to avail themselves, of help from a franchise? Is there any help available?
Smith: Let me answer the last question first. Is there help available? Yes. The NFLPA provides a range of services, and we like to consider ourselves being able to provide every service and every need a player might have in a certain circumstance. It's nothing we talk about publicly, and it's nothing we put on a billboard, but what we stress with our teams and with our reps is that if there is a player in need, and you and I have been in this business long enough to know that there are players in need, and it runs a gamut of issues. But we are there to provide that help whenever it's necessary.
I don't believe that any player in any situation should be out on a lifeboat all by himself. That's not the way we view our mission. It's not just to defend them in a lawsuit, or to defend them against commissioner discipline, or defend them in the drug policy. We're service providers. Whether it's people in the trust that provide a range of emotional, psychological, physical and transitional needs for players. Whether it's our team advocates, who are able to provide expert help to any player who needs it, 24 hours a day, anywhere in the country.
SI.com: What if Janay Rice [or any other spouse/partner] calls you and says, "I'm in fear for my life"?
Smith: There is no player in the National Football League, and no spouse in the National Football League, who will call the NFLPA and not get the help they need.
SI.com: The NFL has said that it did not see the video [of Rice assaulting Palmer]. The Baltimore Ravens say they have not seen the video. Nobody has seen the video, despite the fact that several different reporters have said for months that [people in the league had seen it]. Does this pass your smell test?
Smith: [Laughs] I don't know. You know, Doug, the former prosecutor in me tends to dive into the facts and get all the details first. I certainly know how to conduct an investigation. So, our job will be to go back with respect to this issue and deal with it all. And certainly that means knowing everything -- but first and foremost, where we begin is how we feel about any act of violence. It's uncalled for, and it should never happen.
SI.com: Were you actually relieved when the new domestic violence policy came out? And how much did Roger Goodell or anyone else in the NFL talk with you about that? Was it vetted past you, or were you involved in the process?
Smith: We were told what the commissioner wanted to do, because that falls under personal conduct. The league goes out of its way to make sure we don't negotiate over things that fall under the Personal Conduct Policy, but obviously you know that we believe in having a neutral arbitrator for all sorts of conduct. I actually believe it's better for the game if you have someone who's separate who hears those matters. I wouldn't say I was relieved or anything. They notified us what they wanted to do on the domestic violence issue, and that doesn't change the fact that we place a premium on educating and teaching and hoping that our young men aren't just good football players -- that they're good people in their communities. They're good husbands, good fathers. That they're good sons. It's what I would want for my son, and what I would want for my daughter. Whether there's a new policy by the league or a new program by the league, or a new punishment for whatever that conduct is, when it comes to our union, our first goal is to make sure that things like this never happen. If they do happen, to address the needs of everyone involved, and as a union, to address the interests of our players.
SI.com: We've talked about your different roles in life -- union head, former prosecutor, father, husband. Is it hard sometimes to look at stuff like this and separate the NFLPA head from the human being, who says, "My God, this is disgusting?"
Smith: Well, as a personal matter, I've spent a whole lot of my career doing just that. Sometimes, the toughest jobs are when you show up at a crime scene as a young prosecutor, and you're holding someone's hand who's been a victim. Or talking to a family member, and they've lost someone through an act of violence. Or even in the other role, where you're sometimes putting someone in jail for a long time. It's rarely one of those moments where it's a high-five moment. What you're trying to do in an imperfect world is to employ the best solutions for imperfect situations. You never ... at least I think that no person should ever lose that personal, humanity, empathy side of them, just because they're doing a job.
SI.com: We've talked a lot about punishment; let's talk about possible retroactive punishment, if the NFL and NFLPA are finally able to agree on a new drug policy. It's been a bone of contention since the new CBA was ratified in 2011. As much as you can tell us, where is everyone with that process?
Smith: It's been a long, and just like collective bargaining, messy process. I asked our team to head to New York today [Monday] to negotiate with the league, and we intend to have a call with all our reps [Tuesday] night to advise them where the league is on its final policy. One major sticking point remains the league's insistence that players be suspended or disciplined immediately upon arrest for DUIs. That is something that we as a union believe is inconsistent with due process. I don't believe that our players believe it's the right course to take. We're happy to be tough on domestic violence, and we're going to be tough on driving while impaired. We know that it places our players, and our players' families, and their friends, at risk. This is a serious and very mature player leadership that believes we have to take steps at times to keep our players safe. But they also believe in due process.
I notice that the league didn't choose to suspend its owner when that owner was arrested [Colts owner Jim Irsay], and I believe the commissioner's comments at the time were that he wanted to wait for due process to find out all of the facts. I would expect that to apply to the players as well.
SI.com: One thing that maybe crowbars in here is the Ray McDonald situation. You have a player who, right after -- one day after -- the new domestic violence policy comes in [he gets arrested]. But it's not yet proven ... is this also a situation where no matter how bad something is, you always have to go through due process, or are there situations where suspension is warranted because something is so horrible, it doesn't matter?
Smith: I look at it like this, and maybe it's the perspective of being a homicide prosecutor, where every day, you see very horrible things. Even though I was a gung-ho prosecutor, I always recognized the value of, and the importance we always place in, due process. And whether it's a horrible crime that's on videotape, or a horrible crime where somebody might admit it to the police in a statement, we nonetheless provide those people, no matter how heinous the crime, with due process. And we don't tend to say, well, in this circumstance you're not entitled to it, but in that circumstance you are. That's not the way our Founding Fathers envisioned the Constitution, and thankfully, it hasn't been the way constitutional and criminal [law] has developed over the centuries.
I do think there is something important about insuring you have all the facts. I do think there is something important about making a measured decision about what's going to occur in a situation. For us and for our union, we have a duty to serve our members, which I make no apologies for. I do believe that even if there is something higher than that which we owe allegiance to, it's a system of fairness, a system of process, and like Lady Justice, with scales and a blindfold. You don't make determinations based on how you feel about a particular case at a particular time that affects a particular person.
SI.com: How do you reconcile that with the Ben Roethlisberger decision a couple years ago, or the Terrelle Pryor thing, where Pryor's college suspension somehow followed him into the NFL? It seems that there are some moveable goalposts on the NFL's side.
Smith: And that's why, at the end of the day, I believe that our system is served when players, owners and the league office believe and know that the entire process is consistent, that it applies to everyone and that there are measurable ways of demonstrating fairness. And I believe where you have circumstances where you can look at how an owner was treated in one case, and a player was treated in another, or where there are multiple punishments for what appears to be the same conduct. Or where statements about the basis of conduct are inconsistent with other things you learn about later.
Take for example the case that came out of a few years ago on bounties, where the allegations that were made early on by the league were never supported by the facts after a due process hearing.
SI.com: And you had two commissioners going at it, where former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue eventually came down on the opposite side of Goodell's original decisions. That was interesting.
Smith: Well, as long as one got it right.
SI.com: Sure. Just not the one who was in office.
Smith: [Laughs] Well ... every now and then, a zinger. I do believe that any system of justice is better served when we know for a fact that it's one that's going to be fairly blind.