DeMaurice Smith loves a fight. When he was a litigator, he used to do push-ups outside the courtroom to get his heart rate up, as if he were about to compete. 

Today, as the executive director of the National Football League Players Association, the labor organization representing professional football players in the NFL, every day is a battle for Smith. 

“I’m born to be combative,” Smith said. “If someone gave me a shirt that had that on it, I would wear it.”

Smith spoke with Mickey Quiñones, dean of the E. Claiborne Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond, during the second event of the 2019-2020 Robins Executive Speaker Series on Tuesday, Oct. 29. 

Students and community members filled Ukrop Auditorium as Quiñones and Smith covered the business of the NFL and the NCAA, specifically the rights of athletes and the constantly shifting balance of power in the industry. 

As Smith told stories about his nearly 11 years leading the NFLPA, his roots in the courtroom and years of listening to sermons from his grandfather, a Baptist preacher, became evident. 

Smith’s job is the same as any other union leader’s: to fight for fair wages, hours and working conditions, he said. It is no easy task, especially in the NFL, where men play only three and a half years on average and the injury rate is 100%, Smith said.

“Collective bargaining for any union, just like our union, is not for the faint of heart,” Smith said. “It is messy. It is contentious. Everybody leaves a little unsatisfied.”

Smith made it clear that no one should feel sorry for NFL players. But just like any other workers in the U.S., they have rights. And players are up against powerful opponents, on and off the field, Smith said.

“I know the teams get 100% out of our players,” Smith said. “So why shouldn’t we get 100% of the money that’s due? Seems simple, but generally the answers that we get from the owners are – what’s the word I’m looking for – no.”

Quiñones said he had hoped that hearing about Smith’s path and his passion for his players would help students understand more about the business of the sports industry. 

“Our job here, and I think our perspective, is to try to ensure people understand that business impacts all aspects of our lives,” Quiñones said.

Smith does not shy away from difficult topics. The speaker event occurred on the same day that the NCAA made a major decision allowing students participating in athletics the opportunity to benefit from the use of their names, images and likenesses.

“The reason today is somewhat historic is, as far as I can tell, this is the first time that the NCAA has even acknowledged that a college athlete has a likeness that is his or her own,” Smith said. “So, let’s give a round of applause.”

He paused. “I’m not a fan of the NCAA. That’s probably the kindest thing I can say.”

As a member of the women’s soccer team, junior Cassidy Bennetti, a business major, was able to attend a roundtable discussion between Smith and student-athletes before the event. 

During the roundtable, Smith talked about the rights of athletes and about how the NCAA and the NFL were similar.

“I was really impressed with his passion,” Bennetti said. “I just loved how he challenged things and he’s not afraid to say maybe not what you want to hear.”

Mariah Bayless Davis, a third-year law student at the T.C. Williams School of Law, also attended the event, and said she had loved it.

Davis said she had worked in the media relations department of the New England Patriots in 2016 and hoped to pursue a career in sports entertainment law. 

“I’ve had some experience with people from the NFLPA before when I worked for a team, so I was kind of on the other end of it, but it was just really cool to come here and hear Mr. Smith speak,” Bayless Davis said. “I loved how transparent he was.”

Smith’s job is not just about fighting for benefits for players on the field. He also helps to defend them in court if they commit crimes. Smith admitted that this part can be difficult.

When asked how the NFLPA deals with players’ conduct off the field, specifically in cases of domestic abuse, Smith said:  “To borrow a line from my grandfather’s pulpit, you can love the sinner, hate the sin. Every union member has a right to the full representation of this union. And because we take the view that we represent our players to the death, there is nothing there for me to apologize for.”

Smith explained: “We’ll spend half a million dollars fighting for a guy’s $15,000 salary bonus that he didn’t get. Why would I apologize for one and not the other? So, at the end of the day, our job is a relatively easy one in circumstances where it’s not easy.”

Smith’s passion lies with the players. He said he worked hard to make sure that their lives after football were better and more enjoyable than the three and a half years they spent as players. 

The transition, Smith said, can be difficult. The NFLPA created a transition program to help with the difficulty.

Smith ended the discussion with a challenge for the students in attendance.

“For the young people in the audience, and for me, at my age, you’re all young,” Smith joked, “whether it’s in our business, the sports business, or any other business, we’re sorely in need of young people who are willing to think about things differently, engage in a different way, to challenge status quo. None of us should believe we’ve cornered the market in how to do things the right way or the best way.”

Contact contributor Caroline Robelen at caroline.robelen@richmond.edu.