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August 7, 2009 2:50 PM

Talkin' Football with New NFLPA Chief De Smith

Posted by Brian Baxter

DeMaurice Smith

With the start of the National Football League's 2009 season almost a month away, The Am Law Daily checked in with the NFL Players Association's new leader, DeMaurice "De" Smith.

The former Patton Boggs government investigations and white-collar practice chair stunned the pro football world in March by beating out ex-players Troy Vincent, Trace Armstrong, and sports lawyer Wm. David Cornwell--who we spoke to last week--to succeed late union chief Gene Upshaw.

Smith, the third former federal prosecutor to assume control of a major North American sports union after the NBPA's Billy Hunter and NHLPA's Paul Kelly, brings an impressive array of legal credentials to the executive director's chair.

He spent a decade as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia before joining Main Justice as counsel to then-deputy attorney general Eric Holder, Jr., during the Clinton administration. That was followed by five years at Latham & Watkins, which Smith left in November 2006 to join Patton Boggs.

The Am Law Daily caught up with Smith on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio--six new members will be enshrined on Saturday--to talk about succeeding Upshaw, negotiating labor agreements, and adding to his in-house staff in Washington, D.C.

How were you considered for this position?

I got a call in October from an executive search firm that was looking to create a book of potential candidates. They told me more than half of that book was filled with people already connected to the sports world and they wanted 30 percent to be people who didn't have that 'traditional' connection.

Did you worry about not having any sports experience?

I felt I was the best candidate. The only question I had was whether I had a skill set and passion that would be a service to the players of the NFL.

You used to work with Eric Holder in the Clinton administration. [Holder's former firm, Covington & Burling, happens to be the NFL's longtime outside counsel.] Were you getting other inquiries about returning to the public sector?

Let's just say the recruitment process had begun. At the time I was being considered for the U.S. attorney job in D.C. But in January I went down to Dallas to meet with the union's executive committee and after that I was invited to be a finalist. That's when I pulled my name out of consideration for anything with the administration.

What was your first order of business after being elected NFLPA chief?

The first would be the relationship between our union and the retired players, including an outstanding lawsuit. They've sacrificed and laid the foundation for the current players. In the business of football there really is no division between current and former players. They all benefit from a healthy NFL with an ongoing labor agreement and they all suffer in the absence of that agreement.

With a labor battle looming, how are you reaching out to players?

We've visited 26 teams in less than six weeks so I could introduce myself and emphasize where they were in the business of football given that the owners had walked away from the labor agreement and were apparently interested in locking them out.

The pigskin purist in me hates to say it, but I guess it's not just a game.

It's not just a game; it's also a business. And our players are young businessmen who play a brutal sport. Their careers last an average of four years. So I've got to step into this vacuum caused by the passing of Gene Upshaw, who wasn't just one of the greatest football players of our time, but also a great union leader.

What are some of the major issues that will come up in labor negotiations?

There appears to be a concerted effort to lock our players out in 2011. There are 1,700 players, their families, and over 10,000 retired players who will be hurt by that. So my only core issue right now is to avoid that.

Looking forward, what are your goals at the union?

Nothing would make me happier than getting a new collective bargaining agreement. That's number one. Improving the health, safety, and lives of our players on and off the field is number two. And finally, working with the league in making our game a better experience for our fans.

Are you hiring in-house lawyers? Choose your words carefully unless you want to receive 5,000 applications.

That would only be 3,000 more than I've already received. I've been told that we just hired the first two women lawyers to work for the NFLPA. It's an exciting time and I'm always interested in the best talent.

 

 

All interviews are condensed and edited for grammar and style.

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