The executive director of the National Football League Players Association and a former Washington Redskins player discussed the role of political conversations in professional sports at the Marvin Center Tuesday.
DeMaurice Smith, who has led the labor union for NFL players since 2009, joined Madieu Williams, a former Redskins safety, and Lara Brown, the director of the Graduate School of Political Management, in a panel event hosted by GSPM. The three spoke about the role of political advocacy in sports and the public’s changing view of NFL players after the 2016 presidential election.
Williams applauded NFL players who are bringing political protests to the field – often taking a knee during the national anthem – because players used to hold the same conversations about police brutality and other hot-button issues in locker rooms for years.
“I think it’s one of those things where guys are more empowered, they are more unified,” Williams said.
But Williams noted that the protests have hurt NFL television ratings – something President Donald Trump has pointed out repeatedly amid his criticisms of the protests.
Smith said NFL franchise owners’ ongoing decision not to hire Colin Kaepernick, the former San Fransisco 49ers quarterback who led the movement to take a knee during the national anthem, demonstrates the difference in priorities between the league’s leaders and players.
“You have Colin fighting for the things he was fighting for, and to tie a loop on it, none of the owners are ever going to be involved in that,” Smith said. “They don’t care. The owners don’t care about anything but money.”
Both Smith and Williams defended players’ rights in both the NFL and in other professional sports leagues to express themselves both on the field and online. But Smith said players should be wary of “hashtag activism,” which often doesn’t translate into tangible political results – a sentiment Williams echoed.
“What are you actually doing?” Williams said. “One of the things for guys to do is to become more civically involved.”
Williams said NFL players can participate in NFLPA-organized lobbying days, during which players visit Congress to discuss issues important to football players, like workers’ compensation.
Smith said his role as head of NFLPA is inherently intertwined with public policy efforts because the organization advocates for player safety.
“Thirty-seven days into my term, I was testifying on the Hill about a change in concussion awareness,” Smith said.