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In the premiere episode of the all-new series Edge of Sports, host Dave Zirin interviews DeMaurice Smith, outgoing Executive Director of the NFL Players’ Association. The episode also touches on the controversy surrounding Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson’s new $260 million deal—and how scrutiny regarding players’ salaries is never extended to the big bucks pocketed by franchise owners. Finally, sports journalist Professor Travers joins ‘Ask a Sports Scholar’ to discuss the right-wing hullabaloo over trans kids playing sports. 

Click here to watch the full, unabridged interview with Demaurice Smith.

Studio Production: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Taylor Hebden
Opening Sequence: Cameron Granadino
Music by: Eze Jackson & Carlos Guillen


Dave Zirin:  Hi, I’m Dave Zirin, and welcome to Edge of Sports, the TV show here on The Real News Network. This is meant to be a place where sports, politics, and culture collide. And I could tell you more about what Edge of Sports is going to be all about, but as they say, show, don’t tell. You want to see what kind of show this is? Let’s, as the great Moses Malone once said, be all about that action. In other words, let’s jump right in. 

We have a hell of a show this week. We have in-studio the outgoing head of the Football Players Union, NFLPA executive director, DeMaurice Smith. We also have our first segment of ASCA Sports Scholar, where we check out cutting-edge sports research. And this week it is Professor Travers, who teaches at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. So excited to talk to Travers, but first let’s talk to DeMaurice Smith.

Okay. I promised you that, as Moses Malone said, we were going to be all about that action [Smith laughs], and I’m thrilled to have with us somebody who is all about that action: The outgoing executive director of the NFL Players Association, DeMaurice Smith. How you doing, sir?

DeMaurice Smith:  Good to see you, my friend.

Dave Zirin:  I can’t even begin to talk about the amount of issues you’ve had to deal with over the last 14 years.

DeMaurice Smith:  Yeah.

Dave Zirin:  Compare that to any 14-year period in the history of the National Football League, it’s not even close.

DeMaurice Smith:  It’s not even close.

Dave Zirin:  No, the word is “maelstrom”, is the one I keep coming back to. And one of the issues that’s been so intense over the last decade and a half has been the issue of racism and the way it’s been discussed openly in the League, unlike ever before. What do you say to fans who look at the National Football League, they look at the coaching circles, they look at who’s in the owners’ box, and they believe that the League is afflicted with structural racism? What do you say to those fans?

DeMaurice Smith:  It’s true. I mean, I think that you could use… And if we were splitting hairs, I think that it’s both institutional and structural. Institutional in the sense that it is historical and perpetual. Structural in the sense that we have a closed system in the National Football League. The structure is a closed system. And what I would say to those same fans who feel, and rightly feel, that the League is engaged in structural and institutional racism, what I would say to the fans is, welcome to the National Football League. And the reason why I say it that way is that even your question inherently contained the answer. They are still fans, aren’t they?

Dave Zirin:  Yeah.

DeMaurice Smith:  And so I have a hard time if a fan comes up to me and says, D, what are we going to do about the racism in the National Football League? And depending on whether it’s my first tequila or my third tequila, the eloquence of the answer, but the first thing that I remind them of is, you’re still a fan, aren’t you? You watch, you buy your ticket. So are you supporting this structural and institutional racism? Yes. Yes.

Dave Zirin:  Has your thinking on this evolved since 2009? Or do you feel like you walked in knowing the score?

DeMaurice Smith:  We’re both students of history. So if you want to go back and you have an opportunity to ask Drew Brees, or Mike Vrabel, or Brian Dawkins, or Jeff Saturday, or Foxworth, any of those guys who were on the executive committee when I got elected, they’d probably roll their eyes about what my interview process was. My interview process was primarily teaching them what the National Football League really was.

So I got a call about this job – I wasn’t looking for this job. When the call happened, the first thing I did was spend probably three weeks just doing a deep dive on what the history and structure of the National Football League is. And when you do that, there is an inescapable conclusion that you reach if you’re willing to purely indulge the scientific analysis of the League.

First of all, stop calling it a game and understand why the NFL majority shareholders – Think about it. I’m coming to this job as a partner in a large law firm, former homicide prosecutor. I’m looking at it just from a pure, almost clinical analysis of what the business is. There’s the head of Lazard or there’s the head of Goldman Sachs, and there’s the head of Google, and there’s the head of Amazon. Which one of those guys call themselves an owner?

Dave Zirin:  I mean, [inaudible].

DeMaurice Smith:  Even the NBA calls themselves governors, but, no, you’re the majority shareholder of the Browns, or you’re the majority shareholder of the Ravens, or you’re the majority shareholder of the Commanders. Just so fans understand, I mean, there are multiple owners, people who have invested in this team. Who calls themselves owners?

Dave Zirin:  Yeah. I think people who have certain attitudes about their workers/players.

DeMaurice Smith:  And people who want to remind people of who they are. It’s not just an internal mindset. All of this is performative. So when I’m interviewing with the executive committee, I told them, I don’t think of any of this like the game. They’ve indicated that they’re going to lock you out. That means something pretty simple in the labor world. A lockout isn’t a negotiation. A lockout is just an effort to step on your neck and choke you out until you take a deal that sucks. That’s a lockout.

Dave Zirin:  Yeah.

DeMaurice Smith:  So if a team or if any manager or any business decides to engage in a lockout, know that the deal on the table is an unfair deal, because you would bargain over a fair deal. So this idea that the League was structured in such a way, think about it. There are no 10Ks, there are no 10Qs. There is no public board of directors. There is no Department of Justice oversight. There is no SEC oversight. Nobody delivers an annual report. There is no shareholders’ meeting. There’s nothing in the National Football League that anyone would call a compliance or an accountability structure.

So I know it’d be hard for you and I to imagine, but if you and I were multibillionaires, and we were unfettered with a moral compass, and we had no accountability, no compliance system, what would we do?

Dave Zirin:  Buy Twitter [laughs].

DeMaurice Smith:  Buy Twitter.

Dave Zirin:  Yeah.

DeMaurice Smith:  And then run it…

Dave Zirin:  Into the ground.

DeMaurice Smith:  Right. So this question of institutional and structural racism, whether you are looking at issues of race or gender or class, this is a closed system.

Dave Zirin:  Yeah, great point. Another issue in your tenure that certainly brought a lot of what we’ve been discussing to the surface was, of course, Colin Kaepernick.

DeMaurice Smith:  Right.

Dave Zirin:  No need to explain background on that. What are your thoughts on Colin Kaepernick the person? And I know the union reached out to offer support.

DeMaurice Smith:  We actually represented him.

Dave Zirin:  Okay. Tell me a little bit about the intersection between Colin Kaepernick’s protest and the NFLPA.

DeMaurice Smith:  Yeah. The third thing I would add is just the overall process or what was going on in the country at the time, because you and I know that’s…

Dave Zirin:  That’s critical for understanding everything.

DeMaurice Smith:  That’s critical for understanding everything.

Dave Zirin:  Yeah.

DeMaurice Smith:  So let’s… One giant step back. I’ll never forget… Well, I’ll never forget two things. I don’t watch a lot of football, and I certainly don’t watch any preseason football. But I remember when I got a call from our head of communications that Colin Kaepernick had knelt during a preseason game. And I remember that like it was yesterday. And George said, I agree with you, D, we need to say something. And if you remember, the first public person to come out and support his right to kneel was me and us. The first interview I gave was to Dave Zirin.

Dave Zirin:  That’s right.

DeMaurice Smith:  And that was a deliberate decision, because there are only a few people that I could talk to who understood and would be willing to talk about how that act was framed against both the history of the NFL, the history of protest, and the battle that has never really gone away in America, but certainly a battle that was far more joined over the issue of racism in our country. And so from that moment forward, we felt that it was important – Not to only defend Colin. I looked at it as our role of defending speech and defending our right as a group of players to be something more than a two-dimensional fungible, discardable object. And, again, my frame, it happens on the sideline. It’s not during the game. It doesn’t impact any part of the game. It doesn’t deprive… I’m just D, the CBA lawyer. Doesn’t deprive the fan of his ticket, doesn’t deprive the team of its labor, and it’s not a violation of the collective bargaining agreement.

Now, realistically, do I also understand that it might not be 100% positive or 100% supported by every other player in the League? Fine. But that’s where I feel that I spend most of my time, and at times probably my highest utility is teaching. So, no, it wasn’t popular, but then it became really important to get on the road as quickly as possible, go team to team to team, and basically take this opportunity to teach our membership, this is why the union is taking this position. No, we are not going to decide by majority vote whether somebody has the right to express themselves, because that is something that is not subject to majority rule. And, yes, I heard it. D, is this a democracy or not? Yes. But I don’t care who votes, no one has the right to vote away your intrinsic rights.

Dave Zirin:  Yeah. Seems pretty anti-democratic for people calling for democracy to say people should be silenced.

DeMaurice Smith:  And it’s just like the fans, and, yes, it was just like some of the players, the call for democracy was an illegitimate frame for what you really are believing. You’re talking about it being democracy. But what you’re really saying is, I disagree with what he’s doing. I’m going to interpret it as anti-flag, or I’m going to interpret it as anti-police. Why don’t we just listen to what he’s saying, and understand why he’s doing it, and come to a conclusion that he’s expressing himself over real issues that are plaguing America at the time?

And, by the way, if you disagree, no one is making you kneel. No one’s making you stop the game. And so from there, obviously, when Colin chose not to exercise his option to stay with the 49ers, went into the market, couldn’t get a job, we filed the collusion claim, and he was represented by his lawyers, but also represented by the union. We pursued that case until he settled that case.

Dave Zirin:  Were you glad he settled, or were you hoping it would go to trial so a lot of this could be aired out? You got to have an opinion on that.

DeMaurice Smith:  I do, but that opinion is also covered by attorney-client privilege. But I do have an opinion. Equally important, if not more importantly, however, than just the case. Look, the collusion case wasn’t the first case we brought against the League. It’s probably somewhere around the 600th. But what was more important to me at that time was, as other players stepped up to protest, it was about protecting their rights, but also making sure that this union went into overdrive to articulate and explain to the country and to our fans why this is such a reverential, important way of shining light on injustice.

And so there was that piece. And you probably saw some of the interviews at times, was also going on shows like ESPN and responding forcefully to what I thought was some of the network’s decision to either turn this into spectacle or to frame this in a binary way, a false binary way, that this is taking away from the game. And players are simply choosing whether they are going to sacrifice the game or sacrifice or indulge in their way of self-expression. That’s a false binary choice. And then the other level to it, of course, is knowing that virtually every NFL owner had decided that this was the existential moment for the National Football League. Mind you, we’ve had owners arrested for carrying trash bags of drugs. We’ve had owners with prostitutes. We’ve had owners engaged in gambling. We’ve had owners who were stripped of their teams. None of those were an existential moment for the National Football League. No, the existential moment was a pizza sponsor that was willing to pull out. Some people and in their… Okay, they’re right, every now and then, I can be a little smartmouth.

Dave Zirin:  Are you about to say it’s not very good pizza [laughs]?

DeMaurice Smith:  If our biggest economic worry at the time was whether Papa John’s was going to pull out, then Roger, please tell me that we are on the economic brink of collapse in the National Football League, because I don’t understand.

Dave Zirin:  Right.

DeMaurice Smith:  And so there was that, what we had to deal with. And then, ultimately, the League imposed their unilateral rule banning kneeling. You were either going to stay in the locker room or come out, and somebody was in the side, and somebody wasn’t. And we ended up resolving that for two reasons: One, made it clear that if they didn’t withdraw their unilateral rule, we were going to file a federal case, which I believe we would’ve won. But more importantly, if they persist in this unilateral rule, my message to players would be kneel at the coin toss, kneel during every time out, kneel during every touchdown, kneel during every TV timeout. So pick your poison.

Dave Zirin:  Right.

DeMaurice Smith:  And weirdly, to this day, that standstill agreement where they withdrew their unilateral rule, that’s still in place in the National Football League since then. We haven’t changed anything. The status quo of whether players can kneel – Players can, but that’s just simply a standstill agreement where both sides decided to put their guns away. Welcome to how the National Football League operates.

Dave Zirin:  Another moment during your tenure, something you mentioned already that was so intense and so frightening, was Damar Hamlin’s near death on the field. Now, the report from ESPN in real time was that the NFL said, you got five minutes to get your heads together, now go back out and play. And they said the union talked to the players along with the coaches, and they were the ones that said, no way, and the game was called. The NFL denies this. And I was wondering if you could tell us the truth.

DeMaurice Smith:  The truth.

Dave Zirin:  Yes.

DeMaurice Smith:  Watching the Damar Hamlin situation… Again, I don’t watch a lot of football. My wife and I were watching that game. And after the injury, obviously, for people who were watching on TV, you really couldn’t see what was going on. But the first thing, or the two things that alarmed me were the reactions of the players and the length of time. Because I stay mired in what the emergency protocols are for when players get hurt, and whether it’s an airway, whether it’s a concussion, whether it’s a soft tissue injury, whether it’s a break. We’ve contemplated every injury that could possibly happen and what is supposed to happen in a response to that.

And the length of time that was going on was the thing that alarmed me the most, because I knew that it was something extremely serious. So 10 minutes, maybe five minutes into it, I called Roger. And my feeling at that moment was, we need to call this game. And I don’t know what’s going on, but I know, looking at the reactions of these players, that it’s horrific. And that conversation, let’s just say, went on far longer than it should have.

I understand the League’s interest in checking with the coaches, and I don’t mind telling you that I understand the League’s interest in talking to the players. My position was, this is not a coach’s call, this is not a player’s call. Yes, we are a democracy, but a consensus about whether that game should continue coming from the players, I don’t mind telling you as the head of the union that I don’t believe that that is a player call. It is a leadership call. It’s a morality call. It’s an ethical call. It is not a democratic vote call. And I’ve made that clear. I talked to a couple of players in the locker room. We were fortunate enough to have an executive committee member playing that day. I texted him, talked to him.

Dave Zirin:  Who’s that again?

DeMaurice Smith:  Michael Thomas from…

Dave Zirin:  That’s right, Michael Thomas.

DeMaurice Smith:  …The Bengals. Tremendous… One of our best leaders of all time.

Dave Zirin:  Yeah.

DeMaurice Smith:  Not going to talk about what we talked about, but I just wanted to tell him what my message was to Roger. And then the game was called. So I saw what the League said, that just simply doesn’t square with reality.

Dave Zirin:  Got you. So Roger Goodell, you’ve been working across the table from him for 14 years.

DeMaurice Smith:  Yeah.

Dave Zirin:  Given everything that’s happened over the last 14 years, the intensity, the ups and downs.

DeMaurice Smith:  We’re doing a couple’s vacation next week, sort of an all-inclusive thing.

Dave Zirin:  Nice.

DeMaurice Smith:  Yeah. You got to keep the magic alive.

Dave Zirin:  Yeah, yeah, I was thinking maybe a cruise.

DeMaurice Smith:  [Laughs] Not.

Dave Zirin:  Is he fit to serve? I know that’s not, obviously, your call, but your measure of the man after all this time?

DeMaurice Smith:  Roger, I think we have a far better working relationship now than we did. And it’s going to sound like I’m… I’m not defending anyone, but this is just the frame of what this business is. He represents the interest of the owners. I represent the interest of the players, in the same way that it was Walter Reuther against the head of GM, or Rich Trumka against the head of the coal mines. Those aren’t situations that are breeding grounds for friendly relationships. And frankly, I don’t think they can be.

I don’t mind comprehending that we might be able to negotiate a peace. But if your members are suffering at the hand of that peace, I think it’s rather Pollyannaish to think that someone can have a view of, well, I can talk to them, we’re going to get more from honey than vinegar. Hey, I think those are great little sayings. It didn’t work for my dad when he was marching for civil rights. Didn’t work for my mom when she lived in the Jim Crow South. A lot of people would say it was peaceful. It just depends on which house you’re growing up in.

So that’s the backdrop of how Roger and I met. And it was his first CBA.

Is he fit? Yes. We can go at each other, but he’s incredibly bright. And I think, to some extent, both of us have a very, very difficult job. I’ll tell you right now, I wouldn’t do his job. I’ve dealt with the owners for 14 years. No.

Dave Zirin:  It’s so funny. That feeds right into my next question, which is, you just said you wouldn’t take Roger Goodell’s job, but if I built you a time machine…

DeMaurice Smith:  Yeah.

Dave Zirin:  So congratulations, I’m giving you a time machine.

DeMaurice Smith:  Thank you.

Dave Zirin:  It’s pretty good.

DeMaurice Smith:  Yeah, it’s Mr. Peabody & Sherman [laughs].

Dave Zirin:  Exactly. We’ll star in the reboot. The live action version. If I take you back to 2009, what advice do you give yourself? And –

DeMaurice Smith:  In 2009?

Dave Zirin:  Yes.

DeMaurice Smith:  Don’t take the job [laughs].

Dave Zirin:  And do you take the job, is my next question?

DeMaurice Smith:  No.

Dave Zirin:  Wow.

DeMaurice Smith:  I think the first 18 months in this job were far tougher than I expected. I think that understanding the power of the ownership, their ability to not abide by the rules. I come from a… My background was a strict legal background where the authority of a federal court, the judgment coming from a court, the decision of a judge, the –

Dave Zirin:  You’re talking about the rule of law.

DeMaurice Smith:  The rule of law, the terms of a contract. These are a group of people who not only don’t believe in that, they don’t have to abide by that. And a little bit… Not as far as I’m going to go about it personally, but they are also unbridled in their ability to destroy individuals.

Dave Zirin:  Have you ever felt targeted?

DeMaurice Smith:  Yes! This is what they do. But this is for our, again, our historical frame of reference. Whether the issue is civil rights or gender rights or labor rights, you can look across history at those civil rights leaders, or those people who were fighting for equality with respect to gender, or those labor leaders who were fighting for fairness for families. Find me an instance where they weren’t personally targeted.

Dave Zirin:  No, that’s right.

DeMaurice Smith:  The only difference is this is a multibillion dollar industry that has no compliance or accountability structure from the outside.

Dave Zirin:  You’d tell yourself that in 2009?

DeMaurice Smith:  I would… Yeah. I mean, there was certainly an intellectual understanding of that. There wasn’t a practical, emotional comprehension of that.

Dave Zirin:  Got you.

DeMaurice Smith:  And coming into this job where, unfortunately, Gene Upshaw had already passed away, so I didn’t have someone in the chair who would at least be there to say, you’re on the right track. You’re on the wrong track. It’s okay to feel these things. It’s okay to understand that you feel like you’re free-falling.

Think about it. We had to engage in a strategy… One of our foremost strategies to protect the union was decertifying the union. So you get elected in 2009 to head up the NFL Players Association in March of 2011. The smart legal strategy was to dissolve that same union. And intellectually, you can convince yourself that, yes, this is the thing to do. But you’re sitting in a room with a piece of paper and it has your name at the bottom of it dissolving the union that Ed Garvey and Gene Upshaw built. If you have an ounce of empathy, that is a sobering moment, and you’re by yourself.

So, no, the first 18 months, what I would’ve told myself in 2009, knowing what I know now, would probably advise myself of, step away from the intellectual, you’ve got that. Appreciate the emotional, existential impact of what these next 18 months are going to be.

Dave Zirin:  I love asking you this. I’ve asked you this at different points over the years. Who are some of the players that have been good union people?

DeMaurice Smith:  Well, Michael Thomas is one of those guys who came in as a young member of the executive committee, primarily filled that role on the field as a defensive back special teams guy. But the reason I love players like that is those are the guys who are, for the most part, signing successive one-year, two-year contracts. That’s the core of our union. I know people see the Tom Bradys and the Jaylens and the Lamars and the Mahomes, but 70% of our players are on League-minimum contracts. So as an aside, when you’re doing that 2020 deal and you have the ability to raise all of those minimums by 20% with a stroke of a pen, that’s what unions are for. And I want to be surrounded by guys who get that.

But there’s guys like Michael Thomas. There’s… JC Tretter currently is a tremendous leader. Eric Winston was one of the best presidents we’ve ever had. I can make an argument that, other than Kevin Mawae, at least for my tenure, I don’t know of two presidents who carried so much weight on being a leader of the union. But guys like Richard Sherman have been tremendous leaders. Vincent Jackson was one of the best leaders we’ve ever had, that crop of quarterbacks.

Dave Zirin:  I think it’s so important for people to hear this, what you’re saying right now, because unions get so marginalized in the national conversation. Beyond marginalized. Erased.

DeMaurice Smith:  Beyond marginalized, yes.

Dave Zirin:  Erased. So when you hear that some of the people who have some of the most cultural capital in the United States also being proud union people, that’s important for people to know.

DeMaurice Smith:  I can only think of a handful of people that I would have this conversation with.

Dave Zirin:  Yeah.

DeMaurice Smith:  And it’s because of your empathy and the fact that you are just such a great storyteller and a student of history. Because if you don’t understand where this fits, it’s just seriatim story after story, meaningless, with no thread.

This struggle is inextricably tied to the civil rights movement, and it’s inextricably tied to the labor movement, and it’s inextricably tied to historical fights for freedom and fairness and equality. And if you don’t understand the frame of this, you are just blathering on ESPN about third and long – Which is why I don’t do that anymore because I found my anger level and my emotional level to be on the verge of explosion.

And so when I sit down with a writer, and especially in the past, writers that I know are good writers, only to have them either do an interview or result in a piece that is utterly devoid of historical cultural labor frame, I find that absolutely maddening. And worse yet, I feel like I have perpetuated a stupid conversation. And I never have a terrible conversation with you for all the reasons we’ve talked about.

Dave Zirin:  Hey, D Smith, thanks so much for joining us here on Edge of Sports, man.

DeMaurice Smith:  Dave, thank you for always being such a thoughtful friend.

Dave Zirin:  And now, I’ve got a little bit more to say about the National Football League. Last week, the eyes of the sports world lasered in on Baltimore, interrupting the NBA and NHL playoffs, and even the NFL Draft. The news was finally breaking about the future of Lamar Jackson, the Ravens’ quicksilver MVP quarterback. After a two-year telenovela of a negotiation, Jackson and the team struck a deal, and the numbers sound like a Dr. Evil ransom demand: $260 million over five years, with $185 million guaranteed. Yes, Lamar Jackson will be the highest-paid player in the NFL next season. 

Now, one may question paying anyone that much money to play a game, but pro sports, especially football, is not just a game. The NFL, to paraphrase The Godfather Part II, is bigger than US Steel, and by a lot. Imagine Scrooge McDuck diving into gold coins or Mr. Burns and Smithers on The Simpsons having a money fight, and one could envision, perhaps, how Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones spends his weekends. 

The NFL is not only the most popular sports league in the country; it wins the Nielsen Ratings with regularity, and this is television that people will sit through commercials to watch. As an old expression in the league goes: being an NFL franchise owner is like being a bartender on spring break – You don’t have to be good at it to make lots of money. Now, since the resulting billions of dollars are divided equally among the franchises, teams have dramatically increased in value over the years. This is why former Browns and Ravens franchise owner Art Modell called his ownership brethren, “28 capitalists who act like socialists.” Of course, it’s socialism for them, and brain injuries, non-guaranteed contracts, and a 100% injury rate for the players. Socialism for the bosses, cutthroat individualism for the rest. 

Now, the best example of billionaires failing upward in the NFL is Daniel Snyder, who, after 24 years of awful, awful mismanagement, is being compelled to sell the Washington Commanders, and will do so for more than $6 billion. He bought the team in 1999 with a loan-laden $800 million investment, and that’s not a bad return for being the most repugnant franchise owner in all of sports. And if I were to catalog all of Snyder’s myriad sins, this speech would take until midnight. For Snyder, it ends with a platinum parachute because to this remorseless, enormously wealthy league, that amount of money, it’s a rounding error. 

The Ravens, to go back to the Lamar Jackson contract negotiation, have had the cash all along. The only question has been how much they’d have to seed and how much crow they’d have to eat. This has not been about money, it’s been about power. It’s about whether, to paraphrase Jim Brown, the gladiators will ever be able to own a piece of the Colosseum.

Now, the Ravens, clearly in an effort to entice Jackson to stay put in Baltimore, changed their team this offseason. They hired a new pass-first offensive coordinator and signed a more dangerous group of receivers. By refusing to give in, Jackson has molded this team to complement the kind of player he wants to be and the kind of offense he wants to run. This is about an athlete who, in an act of audacious self-determination, grabbed control of his fate. And in the autocratic NFL, that doesn’t happen very often. 

This rebel spirit was also seen in his insistence, despite much mockery, to use his mother as his agent, a move that had NFL media reaching for the smelling salts and agents for the Alka-Seltzer. Now, even without a Jerry Maguire leading the charge, Lamar will keep more of his money. They “showed him the money” and as he said, he’s going to be able to keep it in the family. The one shortcoming for Jackson was a failure to have all of this money guaranteed, but that day is going to come, even if not today. 

Lamar Jackson won this battle. A David against an army of Goliaths. A David against NFL owners openly colluding to not even offer the former MVP of contract, lest they hurt the Ravens leverage. And against all of this, he stood firm. He is now the face of the team, and in many respects, the face of this city. To be a quarterback is to be a leader, and there is no question who the leader is in the Baltimore Ravens locker room. During the most difficult moments of this negotiation, the players were universal in their support. 

And make no mistake, this kind of victory over a team for a Black quarterback –  A group historically denied, derided, and denigrated – Is being noticed well beyond the state of Maryland. In Baltimore, Lamar is more than just an athlete, and now that legend is burnished even further. He returns to Charm City with a contract in his pocket as someone who looked at the NFL with all their money and power and made the billionaires blink.

Dave Zirin:  Now’s the part of the show that we call Class Matters, where we talk to a sports scholar about their area of research. Our first sports scholar is Travers, a professor at Simon Fraser University and a sports trailblazer in their own right. We will talk about that. Travers, how are you?

Professor Travers:  I’m great, Dave. Great to see you.

Dave Zirin:  I’m so thrilled that you’re on the show. First and foremost, what sport and what angle on that sport is your primary area of sports scholarship?

Professor Travers:  I have to say it’s baseball because I’m obsessed with baseball, but I write, generally, about sports and social justice with special emphasis on gender and race.

Dave Zirin:  Now, you’ve also become somewhat of an expert on an issue that’s been roiling the US, which is the issue of whether trans kids will have access to sports. You’ve been called upon to be an expert on this issue in many spheres, and your voice is so welcome, given the level of attacks. What do you have to say about the hundreds of bans? I think it’s almost 500 now in legislative state Houses that have been put forward aimed at trans kids to stop them from playing sports with an emphasis, of course, on trans girls and young women.

Professor Travers:  It’s horrifying. It shows the extent to which the Christian right is willing to go to consolidate a power base. But I try to be a little bit optimistic, which is difficult in this context, in that if trans social movements and our supporters had not been so successful in creating more space for trans people of all ages, this would not be happening. There’s a concerted effort by right-wing organizations to push us back out of public space, and sports is one of the areas they seem to be having the most success.

Dave Zirin:  And what do you say to people who are generally on the side of angels when it comes to issues about social justice? I’m sure you’ve met people like this. They even say they support trans rights, but when it comes to sports, they say, now, now, now, I don’t know. It’s important we keep things the way they are and not make space for trans kids. What do you say to them? Because I’m sure you’ve come across that type of person in your time.

Professor Travers:  I have. And ignorance about the history of sports and the way in which sports normalize gender inequality needs to be attended to. The idea that there are only two sexes and that there is a neat dividing line between those sexes, that’s an ideology rather than a scientific fact. Sports is one of the key cultural arenas that normalizes the idea that men and women and boys and girls are fundamentally different and that men are superior at sports. When people raise issues around trans participation, particularly the participation of trans girls and women, people don’t have the information or the viewpoint to understand these issues from a critical context, which is why education is so important.

Dave Zirin:  Now, I mentioned at the start that you are a sports trailblazer. So you’re not just somebody who teaches about these issues. You’re out there in the mix. I’m hoping you could speak about what trail you have blazed in the world of sports. Since it’s baseball, a sport that you love, in a lot of ways for me as an observer, it makes it all the sweeter that you’ve found a place there. How are you a sports trailblazer?

Professor Travers:  Well, I’ve been coaching baseball since my daughter was in Little League. She’s now 18. I coached my son from age 9 all the way up to 12, but last year, I was made head coach of an 18U AAA baseball team, and I am sure that I am the first non-man to head coach at that level in Canada, if not the US. I have yet to hear of somebody who has been head coach at that level. So as you can imagine, it’s challenging to be the first, but I love baseball so much, and to be able to coach a team with players who can play well, it’s very exciting.

Dave Zirin:  What is the greatest challenge in doing this work as a non-man?

Professor Travers:  Well, if I were to show up white, bearded, with a beer gut, everybody would assume that I knew what I was doing, whereas I have to show that I do. So there’s an incredible pressure to prove my competence rather than prove my incompetence, which is typically what men have the opportunity to do. They’re assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas I make a mistake and it’s like, whoa. 

The thing is, I am going to make mistakes. We all make mistakes because we’re learning, and if we’re in our best environment, we’re at the edge of our abilities. So if I make a mistake, I feel like the consequences are so heavy, whereas my male assistant coach, he doesn’t have to. It’s a real challenge because I’m carrying so much pressure, and yet you want to be relaxed and you want to be present with players. So those two things sometimes go against each other, but this is my second year. I learned so much in the first year, but at times, I do come home and I shake my head and I think, why am I doing this? It’s so hard. But the pull for me with baseball and with coaching is so strong and I love it so much that I do keep going.

Dave Zirin:  Absolutely. It’s love that’s at the root of your burden. What do you love about baseball?

Professor Travers:  I love the strategy. I love the base running game. I love a good defense. I’ve got a $10 bill in the clipboard of my team’s lineup that goes to the next person who lays out and makes a play. We got it up to $30 last weekend because after every series of games, another $10 goes on it and it was cool to see a player who – He’s a really good player, but he wasn’t being aggressive enough in the outfield so we’ve been working with him on that – He laid out. He made the play. It was an incredible play, really instrumental in winning that game, and I handed the money over. 

Those moments are fantastic. Or having a pitcher who’s been having trouble attacking the zone, sending him in and watching him do it and standing next to my assistant coach going, I want this so much for him. And then seeing him do it and the look on his face when he came off the field, it’s hard not to love.

Dave Zirin:  Wow. Travers, Professor Travers, thank you so much for joining us here on The Edge of Sports.

Professor Travers:  It’s my pleasure, Dave.

Dave Zirin:  And now, I’d like to end with some choice words that relate directly to the conversation we just had. Okay. Look, basketball demi-god Dwyane Wade and actor Gabrielle Union have a trans daughter named Zaya, a teenager. They have been open, supportive, public, and loving about their relationship with Zaya, and for this, they were jeered and attacked at the New York Knicks-Miami Heat playoff game. But that’s not all. 

Dwyane Wade, perhaps the most important pro athlete in the history of Florida sports, went public with the news that this iconic figure, who has helped so many throughout the state, has left Florida because of the anti-trans fires that Governor Ron DeSantis has whipped up. It has literally made their lives unsafe. As Wade said, “That’s another reason I don’t live in that state. A lot of people don’t know that. I have to make decisions for my family, not just personal, individual decisions. Yes, I had to educate myself, and yes, I had to get a better understanding. And yes, I had to lose some friends along the process, but I never wavered on loving my kids and trying to find space to get the chance to understand them.”

So Dwyane Wade is forced out of Florida, attacked in public, and I leave you with this question: Why isn’t this a bigger story? Why isn’t ESPN picking this up? Why aren’t all of the sports programs talking about the fact that the most famous athlete in the history of Florida has been forced out of the state? How can we understand not just the attacks on the Wade family, but the silence by people who should be Dwyane Wade’s allies? 

To answer this question, there is much we need to first understand about the sports world, and much we need to understand about the state of this country. That’s what this show aims to provide every week: An understanding of both sports and society and how they collide. So solidarity with Zaya and the Wade family. We’ve got your back.

Well, that’s all our time for this week’s show. From The Real News Network, this is Edge of Sports. Stay frosty. We are out of here. Peace.

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Dave Zirin is the sports editor of the Nation Magazine. He is the author of 11 books on the politics of sports, including most recently, The Kaepernick Effect Taking A Knee, Saving the World. He’s appeared on ESPN, NBC News, CNN, Democracy Now, and numerous other outlets. Follow him at @EdgeofSports.