By Scott Lauck
DeMaurice “De” Smith describes his role as the primary check on the power of the National Football League — or, as he puts it, “a $20 billion unregulated industry” — in a way only a lawyer could.
“You don’t file a 10-K, you don’t file a 10-Q,” Smith said. “You have no public board of directors, you have no SEC oversight, you have no Department of Justice oversight, you have no state authority oversight whatsoever. You only answer to yourselves. What would you do? You could do whatever you want.”
Smith, the executive director of the National Football League Players Association, was the keynote speaker at Lathrop GPM’s annual “State of Litigation” event on April 13. Held in a ballroom at Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Kansas City Chiefs, the annual event — held in person this year for the first time since the pandemic began — drew more than 200 attendees from Missouri and beyond for seminars ranging from cybersecurity to government investigations.
Before becoming head of the players union in 2009, Smith was a trial lawyer in Washington, D.C. and part of the U.S. Department of Justice. He joked that bringing a lawyer into the role caused the players’ collective bargaining agreement to quadruple in size, but he was hardly dismissive of the role that attorneys can play in keeping the sport morally and ethically grounded.
“Something has to be more meaningful than just having some sort of injury-laden game where we can watch from afar and take joy or pity or whatever from whatever is happening to somebody else on the field,” he said.
Smith described the ins and outs of the 2011 players’ lockout, defending Tom Brady in “deflate-gate” and helping current Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson negotiate a new contract as a free agent, as well as his fights with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“It’s ‘Roger,” Smith said when moderator Eric Yaffe, a Lathrop partner in D.C., made the mistake of referring to him as Commissioner Goodell. “Nobody calls me ‘Director Smith.’”
The Lathrop event’s football theme also was a nod of the NFL draft scheduled to take place in Kansas City later in April. Just before Smith spoke, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas made a special appearance at the event to tout the draft and the 2026 World Cup as evidence that the city is “a place that’s walking and chewing gum.”
The draft, Lucas noted, would be held “down the street from Lathrop GPM.”
“I’m sure it was intentional,” he said.