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Tackling Life After Football


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later, we'll meet up with a couple of members of the cast of "The Best Man." Remember, back in 1999, the movie broke ground and scored big at the box office. Now they're back with a sequel and we'll ask stars Terrence Howard and Sanaa Lathan to tell us more about it. That's in just a few minutes.

First, though, we want to talk football. And on this program, we've talked a lot about the growing awareness of the consequences of traumatic brain injury and some of the other less attractive sides of the sport, including some of the financial troubles players have been facing when their playing days are over. Now, though, there is a new program to help players move on after those playing days are over. It addresses both their physical and financial needs. It's called The Trust. It's getting more than $20 million a year from team owners. And DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association is with us now to tell us more. Mr. Smith, welcome back to the program. Thanks so much for joining us.

DEMAURICE SMITH: Michel, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now a lot of people will remember that the team owners made an agreement a couple of months ago to settle some long-standing suits involving complaints about traumatic brain injury that were brought by former players. Is this part of that settlement?

SMITH: Michel, no, this is something completely different. When we were negotiating the new collective bargaining agreement, one of the issues that arose from our player leaders was their desire to have team owners and the National Football League make contributions for the transition of players from football into their post-football careers. So this $22 million a year- and it's set up under what we've called The Trust - is something that is completely separated from the NFL settlements for their concussion lawsuits, and is something that will last for the next eight years.

MARTIN: How does it work? I understand that it's meant to be really kind of a wrap-around idea that kind of addresses just a whole array of things that former players will be concerned with. Tell us a little bit about it.

SMITH: That is what the program is designed to do. We've certainly had a number of transition programs in the National Football League for a period of time. One of the things that we've tried to do is to do something a little bit different that would start educating players about transition, really, at the earliest point in their career. And for us, we've learned that the earlier we can reach back and start to talk about - even pre-NFL players - talking about their likelihood of transitioning into football well and transitioning out of football well. We've really looked to design a comprehensive wrap-around program that combines education, opportunities, training and certainly transition services.

MARTIN: Well, one of the things that I've noticed is that you're partnering with existing institutions, like Babson College or the Cleveland Clinic. One of the things, though, that these medical centers will provide are evaluations.

SMITH: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And why do you feel that that's important?

SMITH: Well, I think that if you have programs that are just cookie-cutter programs, a program that allows a players to utilize post-career services or post-college services - let's just make it simple - that we have always had abilities under the collective bargaining agreements that preceded this one, what we found over a number of years, however, is very few players have actually utilized those services. Given the low level of utilization, we tried to approach this a different way. Let's provide independent and tailored evaluations per player, and then really try to tailor a program to the personal needs of the player and soon-to-be former player.

MARTIN: Well, but that is a question that I have, though. I mean, as I mentioned, this encompasses both kind of physical assessments and directed services, if those who need it, but also career counseling, financial literacy and so forth. What makes you feel that they're going to be more amenable to accepting this kind of help than they have been previously?

SMITH: We don't. What we've tried to do is partner with people who have been incredibly successful in other areas in doing just that, whether it's the Cleveland Clinic or using the services of other companies like IDEO. Those are companies and those are organizations that have a proven track record of working with various groups and actually improving or increasing their access or utilization of services.

MARTIN: Now, before we let you go, you know that I have to ask you about the situation involving the Miami Dolphins where Jonathan Martin, the offensive lineman, said that he has been bullied and harassed by at least one teammate there, and Richie Incognito is the teammate who's now been suspended. It's under investigation. We understand that the owner of the Dolphins has met with Jonathan Martin to this point, and that the NFL is investigating it. What is the Players Association's role in this? When, presumably, you represent both players. Does your association have a role in this?

SMITH: We have a roll across the spectrum. Obviously, we have a duty to represent all of the players in the National Football League, and that's what we're going to do. So we will protect and represent the interest of the players who are affected. But beyond that, it is our mission to make sure that all of our players are working in a professional and sustaining workplace. So in the same way that the National Football League is going to be looking at this from their investigative standpoint, the NFL players are going to do exactly the same thing.

MARTIN: What does that mean, though? I mean, this is being discussed in a number of ways as kind of an employer-employee workplace situation.

SMITH: Absolutely.

MARTIN: In a workplace situation, though, when you - when both parties have equal standing within the association, what do you do?

SMITH: Well, where we start is not just to frame the issue as a player versus player issue. It's a workplace, and we expect that workplace to operate and be conducted in a professional manner. So in addition to certainly representing the interest of both Mr. Martin and Mr. Incognito, as well as the other players there. We have questions about what was the role of the coach and the general manager in that environment? What did they know? When did they know it?

So in addition to representing the interest of the players, we also represent the interest of the entire Miami Dolphins team, and we want to make sure that management should be supporting their duties of creating a professional workplace. And if their duties fell below that standard, that is something that the union intends to pursue with all vigor.

MARTIN: One thing I do have to ask - a number of people who follow the sport say they've never heard of anything like this, and other people say sure they have. Now you've been the executive director of the Players Association for a couple of years now, so you've been inside a lot of locker rooms by now. In fact, you've probably been in every single one in the league at this point. Have you ever heard of anything like this?

SMITH: Well, I choose to answer it this way. I think it's important not to look at this as whether it's something that's occurred before or hasn't occurred before. I think it's important to look at this as an opportunity to find out exactly what happened, who was involved, to the extent that it created a workplace that was unhealthy for all of the players, not just one. Our duty is to do whatever we can to hold the teams accountable to correct it. If it occurs once, it occurs one time too many. And that's the way in which we are approaching our investigation. We certainly look forward to working with the National Football League in connection with their investigation. But just to remind everybody, we believe that, like every union in the country, we have a duty and a mission to make sure that the workplace is a safe workplace, is a professional workplace for the people who work there.

MARTIN: DeMaurice Smith is the executive director of the NFL Players Association, and he was kind enough to join us from by phone from his office in Washington, D.C. Mr. Smith, thanks so much for joining us once again.

SMITH: Thank you very much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.