DeMaurice Smith hits NFL over lack of trust in team doctors
NEW ORLEANS -- For a man who is so interested in safety, DeMaurice Smith sure threw a lot of punches Thursday. And they were all aimed at the head of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Smith said his NFL Players Association "State of the Union" address was really a "State of the Players" address, but he might as well have called it, "Oh, Roger, You Loathsome Pig." Smith used virtually the entire news conference to say that the NFL doesn't care nearly enough about player safety.
The money stat, the one that boggles the mind and tells you just what NFL players think about their league, is this: According to the NFLPA, 78 percent of NFL players do not trust their team doctors at all.
Wow. Seventy-eight percent! In most offices, you can't get 78 percent of employees to agree on what to put in the vending machine.
It gets worse. The players were asked to rank their trust in the medical staff on a scale of 1 to 5. A 1 meant complete trust, a 5 meant they did not trust the doctors at all. So 78 percent chose 5.
Another 15 percent chose 4.
So really, 93 percent of players don't trust their medical staff. That is virtually everybody. That is damning. That is a major problem for Goodell, and it confirms what several players have said publicly: Players think the league's safety measures are more about a show than about safety.
This wasn't Ravens safety Ed Reed in December saying, "It's easy for them to do the things they're doing, fining us and make us look bad, like we're the bad guy, when we're not." He had just been fined and criticized by league officials. The NFL could claim Reed was whining.
This wasn't Saints quarterback Drew Brees talking about Goodell last summer with my colleague Peter King and saying: "Nobody trusts him." The Saints had just been hit hard for their alleged bounty program. The NFL could claim Brees was bitter, or in denial.
This was De Smith speaking on behalf of everybody. This was brutal and harsh -- and as Smith himself said, utterly unsurprising. He said anybody who was shocked by these numbers must live outside of the NFL.
Smith went into great detail about what the NFLPA is doing with the $100 million that goes toward researching player safety, as mandated by the new collective bargaining agreement. Smith says that money comes out of the players' pockets, but it's worth it. He also said the NFL, like any employer, should protect its employees, and the NFL is failing miserably at that.
Players think the league, and their teams, are far more concerned about making money and winning games than about lives. This isn't about medical staffs. It's about NFL culture, and about Goodell. The commissioner makes grand statements about concussions and bounties and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and how the NFL is really on the cutting edge of researching the issue. The NFLPA doesn't believe Goodell is sincere. Smith hammered the league for using replacement referees last fall, saying it put players at risk.
These are not simple issues, and Smith is not saying they are simple. But they are crucial. The NFL has to figure out how to protect its players, and if the league does it right, the lessons and improvements can be passed down to lower levels of football.
Ultimately, I think the answers will come largely from improved equipment. Safer, more protective helmets could go a long way toward reducing concussions. If you want to protect the egg, improve the shell.
But in the meantime, the NFL has a lot of selling to do -- not to concerned fans or wise-guy columnists, but to its own players.
Goodell will hold his press conference Friday, and I'm sure he will tell a different story. Maybe he'll claim the $100 million is not just NFLPA money. Maybe he will talk about research and doctors, rules and suspensions, and how far the NFL has come.
Goodell deserves a chance to air his side. But 78 percent of his players don't trust their team's medical staffs "at all," and another 15 percent don't trust their medical staff much either. And if I were the commissioner of the NFL, I'd be 100 percent embarrassed.