Today I attended the second annual Sports Law Symposium at Santa Clara University Law School. I wanted to see the advertised panel on concussions, including the keynote speech by DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the National Football League Players Association.
Dissident NFL retirees, who don’t like the union’s performance in safeguarding their health and interests, say Smith no-showed his scheduled appearance at last year’s Santa Clara symposium. See today’s post at Dave Pear’s blog, http://davepear.com/blog/2011/09/second-annual-santa-clara-law-sports-law-symposium/.
I enjoyed the opportunity to meet in person for the first time symposium panelist John Hogan, the Atlanta attorney who has done valuable work representing retired players (plus others from all walks of life) on disability issues. The symposium’s proceedings book includes a comprehensive and lucid paper by Hogan entitled “Concussions, Brain Injury and NFL Disability.” I highly recommend the article, which is linked at the Dave Pear post listed above.
Regarding De Smith, I was disappointed when the organizers of the event canceled the public question-and-answer portion of the concussion session, explaining that the symposium was behind schedule. This had the unfortunate effect of giving it the feel of a rubber chicken circuit rather than a colloquy.
Smith prefaced his keynote speech with some lame jokes about his Baptist preacher forebears, and asked indulgence to deviate from the concussion prompt and address the issue in the total context of “justice and fairness” for athletes. That actually was not a bad frame at all for the discussion, and it led to the panel’s most interesting moments when the special guest, football great Jim Brown, gently grilled Smith on the NFLPA’s second- and third-class treatment of retirees. Appropriately, Smith countered by citing improvements in this area in the new collective bargaining agreement. Some of these, such as the redistribution of hundreds of millions of new “Legacy Fund” dollars, remain vague in the details, but they will certainly be improvements, even if still inadequate.
My own No. 1 purpose in attending this event was to confront Smith about a cause I have been championing, essentially all by myself, for months: the idea that the joint NFL-NFLPA disability review board must reopen all rejected claims during the board tenure of the late Dave Duerson. Decisions during that period were fundamentally tainted by the participation of a player advocate who not only had publicly downplayed the link between football and mental disability in Congressional testimony, but also wound up committing suicide – whereupon he was found to have had chronic traumatic encephelopathy himself.
With the announcement that the concussion panel was skipping the public microphone, I joined a gaggle of audience members who pressed Smith at the podium for one-on-one dialogue. (Just ahead of me was Delvin Williams, the 56-year-old former NFL running back. Williams and Smith seemed to be discussing a private matter.)
By the time I got Smith’s ear, he was being hustled out the door to his next appointment. Unburdened of the need to give my Duerson question a lot of background for the benefit of a general audience, I said: “Mr. Smith, picking up from your theme of justice and fairness, can you please tell me whether you think Duerson-reviewed claims should get a second look? Please don’t answer in legalisms – the confidentiality of the review board process, or not knowing exactly how Duerson voted in individual cases or whether his votes made a difference. Isn’t this Fairness 101?”
Smith regurgitated the question but didn’t answer it before we separated.
I am faxing this post to Smith’s office. Of course, I’ll publish any reply I might receive.