DeMaurice Smith: Deep sense of mistrust for players with NFL discipline

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith visited New England Patriots players on Monday as part of his annual tour in which he meets with each team through the first few months of the season.

Smith answered questions from ESPN.com after the meeting, and the following is the Q&A:

ESPN.com: As the Tom Brady case unfolded, you talked about the importance of having an independent arbitrator on player discipline issues. Where do things currently stand with this issue? [The Washington Post reported Tuesday that there have been “informal" discussions, but NFLPA officials said the report doesn't change the context of Smith's remarks Monday.]

Smith: Having an independent arbitrator for a lot of these issues that involve commissioner discipline is something that has been important to the players for a long time, ever since we first started negotiating with them in 2010 formally. It was a major sticking point, for example, when it came to the drug policy. If you remember, we came out of the collective bargaining agreement without a comprehensive drug policy, primarily because the league did not believe in having an independent arbitrator, and it took us three years until the league finally agreed. That's virtually analogous to our issue with commissioner discipline. It's been four years now since we signed the collective bargaining agreement, and at least up until this point, the NFL owners have been resistant to having an independent arbitrator. I think the only thing that has changed is we've had instances with [Ray] Rice, [Greg] Hardy, [Adrian] Peterson, and now with Tom [Brady], where the lack of an independent arbitrator has necessitated long and ugly fights. Yes, we've won them and I'm happy for our players that we've won. But I don't think anyone can look at the current state of affairs and come to a conclusion that this is good for our business or for our game. I'm thrilled with the decisions overturning the commissioner's conduct, but I think we are much better off if we have a defined system where our players and our owners know exactly what the rules are. If there are challenges to that, it goes to someone that we've neutrally picked and the issue gets resolved within a firm understanding of due process. We have a system now where due process wasn't followed and in those last five, six times, the commissioner has been overturned. I'd much rather prefer a system where we had an independent arbitrator, but if they don't want a system where this is an independent arbitrator, this is a players union that is going to fight for our players and we certainly don't make any apologies for that.

ESPN.com: When some say the NFL is unwilling to budge because it doesn't want to allow the union to rewrite the collective bargaining agreement…

Smith: Actually, that isn't their response. Their response is that they don't want an independent arbitrator. I haven't heard one owner say that you can't renegotiate the CBA. All they would need to do is take a look at drug policy; that was done two years ago and the last time I checked that was after 2011 [when the current CBA was finalized]. We have right now probably 150 side letters to the collective bargaining agreement. They wanted us to change the collective bargaining agreement when they penalized the Cowboys and Redskins [for salary cap violations in 2012]. So no owner or nobody from the league office has ever offered a challenge that you can't amend the collective bargaining agreement. We do it all the time. What their response has been is, 'No, we don't want an independent arbitrator.' And that's where we are. What we have asked for them to do is engage in the collective bargaining process, and when it comes to the commissioner discipline process, they have specifically decided that they don't have to. The current state of affairs lays at the feet of the NFL owners. If they want to change it, they have the power to change it -- come to the collective bargaining table and we can knock something out in a matter of hours.

ESPN.com: How would you describe the state of relations right now between the union and the league?

Smith: I think the players look at it as economically the deal is great for us. There have been changes to practice times and increased health and safety measures, but all of that came as a result of collective bargaining. The one area where the league has chosen to act unilaterally is ironically the area where we've had the most friction. There is a deep sense of distrust. The executive committee I report to is extremely frustrated with the lack of leadership by the owners up to this point on the issue. Again, they're happy when we win the case. It's just a group of senior players who say to themselves, 'Exactly why are we talking about the first half of the AFC Championship Game, literally, until the beginning of the next season?' For a group of vested veterans, they look at that as simply not an example of good business. I agree.

ESPN.com: Patriots team president Jonathan Kraft has said publicly that it might be time to look closer at Roger Goodell's role in the player discipline process. Jed York of the 49ers and Arthur Blank of the Falcons have publicly endorsed that position as well. What is your reaction to that?

Smith: I am a firm believer in the collective bargaining process, and to this day [Monday], we are still awaiting a written response to our proposal to the league for an independent arbitrator. I can't control what owners say. I'm cautiously optimistic about their comments. But what the process requires is to provide a written proposal that specifically addresses the issue of an independent arbitrator. That's how we start the process. As the saying goes, 'talk is cheap.'

ESPN.com: What do you accomplish when you visit a team, like you did Monday with the Patriots?

Smith: It's the meat and potatoes of the union. They have great leadership here with [Matthew] Slater and Ryan Wendell and [Stephen] Gostkowski [as player representatives]. They have great veteran leadership. But the flip side of it is that nearly half the team is composed of people who came into the league after 2011. So it's important to remind them that we got a collective bargaining agreement that keeps them safer because their quarterback was one of several players who sued the league to challenge our right to collective bargaining. And guys who used to here, like Mike Vrabel, were people who served on the executive committee. We're tied to our history as a union. While certainly a number of men benefitted from the sacrifices of those players not so long ago, they are going to be asked to make sacrifices and stand resolved for players who are coming into the league in the near future. So they're reminded of their history, they're reminded that this is a union that fights for their workers comp cases. I know the Tom Brady case was on the lips of every person in this great state for a long time, but for every case we're fighting like that, there is probably 100 workers comp cases that we're fighting for other players. That's the work of the union. I'll be in Buffalo [Tuesday], Pittsburgh on Wednesday, and we'll hit all 32 teams before Thanksgiving. That's the core of what our job is."