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NFLPA’s DeMaurice Smith: NFL draft gave fans ‘window into who our players are’

The union’s executive director explains why the virtual event was a success

DeMaurice Smith understands the concerns expressed recently about the optics of the NFL draft, but the leader of the NFL Players Association believes the event, fundamentally different from previous years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, nonetheless succeeded at introducing the league’s future stars in a fresh manner.

During a phone interview Tuesday with The Undefeated, Smith, the NFLPA’s executive director, lauded the league for conducting a virtual draft, which was necessary because of social distancing efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The draft enabled the union’s newest members to have their moment in the spotlight at a time when many traditions have been suspended. For that, Smith is grateful.

“It was a success from that standpoint that millions of Americans saw our players in a far more natural [setting], surrounded by far more of the people who love them and the people they love,” Smith said.

In the first round of a typical draft, top prospects would wait in a green room with a small group of supporters, usually family members. On hearing their names called by commissioner Roger Goodell, they would make their way to the stage, greet Goodell and pose for pictures while holding up a jersey of their new team. From that point, they’d be busy with media obligations.

“There was a level of raw emotion that typically isn’t there for an event that tends to be far more of an entertainment [spectacle],” he said. “It gave millions of people a window into who our players are as men. And any time they can see our players for who they are, as opposed to the entertainment part of it, that’s good.”

Smith is in his 11th year leading the union and oversaw the ratification of a new collective bargaining agreement with the league in March. He also addressed the optics of the lack of people of color at the highest levels of club management.

In the NFL, the positions of general manager and head coach are overwhelmingly occupied by white men. In the draft, 30 of the 32 first-round picks were players of color, including 29 black players. With all eyes on the draft, the NFL came off poorly in an important area, several current and former black NFL executives, coaches and players told The Undefeated. A wealth gap, among other things, was apparent, Smith said.

“When you watched these kids surrounded by their parents, sometimes with extended family and friends,” Smith said, “and then the scene switches over to another view [on screen of general managers and head coaches] … it’s just vastly different. … It does hit you right there in the face because it’s on TV.”

Entering the upcoming season, the NFL has only two African American general managers and four head coaches of color. Among the principal owners in the 32-team league, Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, who is Pakistani American, and Buffalo Bills co-owner Kim Pegula, who is Korean American, are the only nonwhites. The NFL, which during 2019 commemorated its 100th season, has never had a black team president. Smith charts the course for a union whose membership is more than 70% black.

Former NFL tight end Benjamin Watson, who held leadership positions in the union during his 16-year career, was so disturbed by what occurred during the draft that he spoke out in a piece for The Undefeated, imploring the NFL to become much more diverse in management. That’s a goal commissioner Goodell says the league aspires to achieve.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (left) and DeMaurice Smith (right), director of the NFL Players Association, sign the new collective bargaining agreement at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 5, 2011, in Canton, Ohio.

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Bud Lite

Smith has no involvement in the league’s hiring practices. But since many union members hope to remain in the game once their playing days end, he stays engaged with what’s happening on that side of the business.

“If you want to see a difference in the business of football,” Smith said, “look at those people in the business who are represented by a union versus those who are not. You look at referees, who have a union. They have ways in which they share information so that people can take advantage of opportunities. You see players and what our union does to support them.

“But when you look at assistant coaches, there is no union. And that falls squarely on those assistant coaches who don’t see the need, or aren’t willing to pay the price, to unionize. And because of that, there’s no transparency in hiring. There are no systems that help protect individuals from unfairness and inequality. The head coaching jobs and the general manager jobs … the pipeline for those jobs [partly] comes from the ranks of assistant coaches. But without a union, the opportunities coaches [of color] want … they aren’t in the pipeline. What we are seeing is simply the downstream production of the lack of collective action upstream.”

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.