"I hate him and I will never respect him," said James Harrison of Roger Goodell back in 2011. Harrison wins points for concision and directness, but Goodell has a new nemesis, and although this one can't leg press 1,000 pounds, he has a different kind of power.
That man is DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). An NFL-outsider with little experience in football, Smith has been in charge of the union since 2009 when he was elected unanimously by a board of players. Put James Harrison's antipathy for Goodell in a 46-year-old former trial lawyer's body and you have someone who can do far more than complain and vent about unfairness in the NFL.
Smith's job is to represent the interests of players. He did so aggressively during the Great NFL Lock-Out of 2011, the longest in NFL history, which resulted in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that extends through 2020. While the current CBA provided for increased player safety, higher salaries, and provisions for concussion-related injuries, it still left Goodell with power over players.
Yes, the NFL has given up power when it comes to on-field fines and drug-related issues, but they have not budged when it comes to personal conduct. Goodell still has sweeping authority over infractions that fall under the conduct policy. DeMaurice Smith is the man tasked with defending players like Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Adrian Peterson, and -- most recently -- Tom Brady. Smith, however, views himself first and foremost as a protector of fairness and process. While he defends individual players, he has a bigger picture in mind.
Unfortunately, in challenging Goodell, sometimes DeMaurice Smith effects consequences (or lack of consequences) that are confusing and troubling to fans. At times, his advocacy for players is conflated with an endorsement of the off-field infractions they have committed. On June 23, we will have an idea how this particular paradox plays out with Tom Brady's appeal.
Most importantly, Smith is the force that demands transparency and keeps Roger Goodell in check, by challenging decisions on a case-by-case basis as long as power over the players rests with the commissioner instead of the NFLPA. Former Steelers DB Ryan Clark has long pointed out the conflict of interest the current arrangement presents. "(Goodell) has always said, 'Well, I don't work for the owners.' That's not true," Clark said "Because in the CBA negotiations you were sitting with the owners."
Ryan Clark is not alone in his concerns about Goodell's dual role. A recent Missouri Supreme Court decision also found a troubling conflict of interest with Goodell's position as both league commissioner and a neutral arbitrator of personnel matters. The court found that Goodell really can't be neutral, and for employees to get fair hearings for workplace disputes, a truly neutral arbitrator must be appointed.
Smith recently told ESPN, "Really, the last step of this process is the personal conduct policy,and up until this point the league has been unwilling to make the same changes that they've made for on-field and drug policy applicable to the personal conduct policy."
Smith also told ESPN about his big-picture goal for the league. "Our goal is to have a league and its players and its owners in a position that warrants the respect of our fans and business partners." Smith is also troubled by inconsistent standards across the league: Players face harsher penalties than owners in cases of misconduct. (Jim Irsay and Jimmy Haslam are examples of leniency when it comes to owners.) The NFLPA has also been a staunch advocate of a neutral arbitrator instead of leaving personal conduct matters up to Goodell and his office.
It is unlikely the owners will limit Goodell, and even less likely he will resign or give up authority voluntarily. That leaves DeMaurice Smith to whittle away at Goodell's power and close what he calls a "credibility gap." It seems DeMaurice Smith is up to the task. Challenging Goodell on a case-by-case basis is exhausting work, but Smith's challenges could gradually diminish the commissioner's power.
The NFLPA has long wanted more involvement in personal conduct matters, but the extent of involvement in their involvement was limited to "seeing the NFL's new conduct policy before it hit the presses." Clearly that is not the level of involvement the NFLPA was hoping for. While the league claims they are invested in "uniform treatment" of conduct infractions, that has not played out during Roger Goodell's tenure. Until the NFLPA and the league come to an agreement on personal conduct, we can expect more of the same: Goodell's arbitrariness followed by NFLPA appeals, and occasional court involvement.