BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’ll talk about the National Football League. We’ll also talk with tech innovator Teddy Ruge.
That’s today on The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us. And don’t go anywhere.
We don’t often think of professional athletes as part of a labor force, but this dynamic is a very important element of big-time sports. Like the traditional workplace, athletes come together, form a union, and elect a representative to negotiate on their behalf with the owners. And like the traditional workplace, negotiations can be highly contentious. Perhaps no professional sports league represents this embattled process like the National Football League, the NFL, where the Players Association and owners jockey over distribution of revenue, contracts, salary caps, player safety, and the length of the season.
Over the last several years, the NFL has been in the public eye for all of the wrong reasons, whether it be numerous domestic violence cases that it has largely ignored, a potential cheating scandal involving a repeat offender, or a systemic coverup of evidence showing how brain injuries might be linked to football. Heads exploded when it was reported that Roger Goodell, commissioner of the NFL, maintains an annual salary of $44 million, this in a league that does not even guarantee full contracts. There is also the double standard that exists when it comes to the players’ behavior and behavior on the part of the owners.
With all that is going on, what direction is the NFL headed? And how can the Players Association be a force for good in a sport that has become America’s new pastime?
And we’re joined by DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the National Football League Players Association.
Thanks for joining us.
DEMAURICE SMITH, EXEC. DIR., NFL PLAYERS ASSOC.: My pleasure.
FLETCHER: This is great.
SMITH: Man, it’s good to see you again.
So I want to start in a sort of unusual place.
FLETCHER: Even though it seems like the entire world, or at least the entire United States, knows and understands football, my argument is that people don’t. I’d like you to introduce our listeners to football, to U.S. football, and from the standpoint of the player.
SMITH: Look, I think that millions of fans see our game; I don’t think many people know our game. Our game is framed every year by 2,000 tremendous athletes, but in my view tremendous employees who are in a relationship with employers that generates about $11 billion a year in revenue, where the employers make financial investments in the business enterprise and our players make physical, emotional investments in the enterprise.
It’s a business that is framed by a 100 percent injury rate. It’s a business that is basically unregulated by the SEC, Department of Justice, Department of Labor. And the frame for the business is a group of players represented by a union that seeks to negotiate and argue for a fair workplace with 31 billionaires.
FLETCHER: In 1987, your union suffered a disastrous strike under your predecessor, Gene Upshaw, the late Gene Upshaw. And I remember it. I followed it very closely. There seemed to be no attempt to reach out to the public and explain the issues. And things just imploded.
When you took over in the last round of collective bargaining, you introduced a very different approach to sports unionism. Could you just say little bit about that?
The difference with us in 2011 was it was a fight brought by management on the players. But you’re still in a fight. And if you fail to articulate the parameters of the fight, if you fail to make sure that your members understand not only the issues but what is at stake, and if you are unwilling to engage in the same type of–I mean, I call it brutal, but deliberate countermeasures that your opponent is willing to engage in, then you’re going to lose. So we make no apology for framing the owners’ demands, for example, that our players play 18 games, or the owners’ demands that they give up their defined benefit pension plan, as attacks on the very humanity of the players themselves, make no apologies for publicizing the fact that the owners cut off the players’ health care when we had dozens of wives and mothers, potential mothers who were due to give birth during the lockout.
FLETCHER: But you were able somehow to garner public support, which was really interesting, because shortly thereafter, the NBA has a lockout, and they got creamed.
SMITH: Yeah. I think having an effective but very deliberate not only media, but campaign to educate both your players and your public, and in these cases sportswriters, about what’s at stake. And, I mean, you remember, one of the big first big fights was to eliminate the media’s desire to call this a work stoppage.
FLETCHER: That’s right.
SMITH: A work stoppage is neutral.
SMITH: A strike is brought by employees. But a lockout is a determination by management that you are forbidden to come to work to earn a living, and we are going to impose that on you and harm you until you’re willing to take a deal that you wouldn’t ordinarily do, so even that battle for the first, really, four months of 2009 just to force the media to use the word lockout because they didn’t want to. And you remember, I know, that we did one of those early radio shows and we talked about my first press conference, where many people in the media said, well, you know, De, work stoppage, we can use work stoppage, or strike or lockout. Whatever. It’s both the same. No. They are morally not the same,–
FLETCHER: That’s right.
SMITH: –and I’m not going to allow you to engage in a questioning of me or our players where you seek to use terminology that’s morally neutral to describe something that’s morally offensive. And that became the frame. And then, after that, I think that in the defense of some of the more mainstream media people, I think that many of them didn’t understand how the National Football League was structured. I don’t think they understood that it was a 501(c)(6) nonprofit. I don’t think that they understood that the 31 teams that are not publicly owned–yes, the Green Bay Packers are a publicly owned entity, but the 31 teams are limited liability partnerships that are owned by 31 people who aren’t like the normal fan, and the commissioner isn’t this benevolent overseer of all things good in football. Our players didn’t vote for his job. And I refuse to call him a commissioner, because his first name is Roger. He doesn’t call me Mr. Executive Director.
I make the argument that if you know everything there is to know about this game and the injury rates and the things that our players go through and the fact that our players as a union have to fight for things like pensions, it can actually make you a greater fan of the game, because you’re not engaged in some sort of furtherance of mythology.
FLETCHER: I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll be back in a minute.
FLETCHER: That’s an interesting segue into something I wasn’t even sure I should raise. It has to do with injuries. Many young men look at football and they see their ticket to the good life.
FLETCHER: And they don’t think much about injuries. I think that watching what happened with Tony Dorsett and many other players, it shook me up. You know, in some ways–.
FLETCHER: All of a sudden it’s personal.
SMITH: Right. And the heroes that you and I had when we were young, we see them at a later age, and we then are able to marry the game we love with the consequences that it has upon a person that we identify with.
FLETCHER: Right. That’s right.
SMITH: And if I believe or if anybody believes that these people are simply fungible, interchangeable, nonhuman entities that I can relate with when I see them on TV and I have the comfort or forgetting about them when I turn the TV off, that’s not the beauty of sport. I mean, you’ve tried to subject or change that person into something that’s closer to a robot than–
FLETCHER: That’s right.
SMITH: –than a sport, right?
But you do see it every day. And I do think–the only thing I would say perhaps different from your frame is I do think our players think a lot about injuries. The reason they play the game is because they love it. Obviously, it’s for compensation as well.
SMITH: But our players have a very real sense of how violent the game is.
I know that TV portrays it in a certain way of, you know, rah-rah impervious to pain. You know, when you’re in a locker room before a game or immediately after a game, there was never a moment where I thought that anybody in that locker room was unaware of what was about to happen to them. I mean, they have a sober understanding about the level of intensity and violence that they’re about to engage in. And it takes someone who is incredibly brave to want to do that.
So I believe that therefore our moral obligation is to be honest with our players, for management to be honest with our players about the risk of injuries.
FLETCHER: Well, the NFL seemed to keep denying that there was any long-term or severe crisis, actually.
SMITH: And it was a lack of courage and a lack of honesty. Our men understand what is about to happen to them from 12:30 to 1 o’clock. That 12:30 moment until kickoff at 1 o’clock, our players have the most crystal-clear understanding about what is about to take place. And what offended me was that same level of courage that the NFL demands from our players as employees was a level of courage that they were unable to match by telling them honestly and candidly about the long-term risk of the injuries that they had.
FLETCHER: Where is the sport going and where is the NFLPA going as you start thinking about the major issues towards the next collective bargaining agreement?
SMITH: That this is a micro frame of the greater struggle between labor and management. You know, I look at the highlights of our union probably a little bit differently than others. I know people get struck with it being episodic. You know, you got through the lockout, you got a new drug policy, you’re fighting for Adrian Peterson. I know fans see it as sort of episodic, you know, micro battles. I don’t see it that way.
When Roger Goodell called our business and where our players work a “workplace” a few years ago, that was a tremendous moment for the NFLPA. Now, I’m sure Roger didn’t intend to give a benefit or a benny to the union, but when the commissioner of the National Football League refers to it as a workplace, that’s a fundamental shift between where we were and going back to the strike in 1980s.
Our job is to further that philosophical change. Football is a great game, but it is a tremendous business. And the goal of this union is to insist that our employees are treated in a way that is consistent with a positive relationship between management and labor.
But anyone who believes that 200 or so years of changes in the rights of workers were achieved because management and labor would just hug it out is a fool. So whether we are teaching our guys about Ludlow or Triangle or Memphis, the sanitation workers, whether we sit down and talk to them about how people who earn much less than them are engaging these protests across the country for raises in the minimum wage, or whether there’s workers in the South for companies like Walmart who are demanding more hours so that they are entitled to the health care that a multibillion-dollar industry at times refuses to give to their [employees], we’re a part of that fight. And that’s why I insist that our players, when we’re asked, did we go on a picket line against Hyatt, fighting for the rights of people who clean rooms for living, or joining picket lines for other restaurants for workers to get minimum wage, the minute that we lose sight that our job is to increase the balance between labor and management is the day where we fail as a union. And I’m not going to let that happen.
FLETCHER: DeMauprice Smith, Mr. Executive Director.
SMITH: Just De, just De to friends.
FLETCHER: I will remember that.
SMITH: Just De to friends.
FLETCHER: Thank you so very much.
SMITH: Thank you, Bill. Thank you very much, man. I really appreciate it.
FLETCHER: [crosstalk] very much. Real pleasure. Thank you.
And thank you for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. We’ll be back in a minute.
FLETCHER: Many have come to see the African continent as the last frontier of development. China, Europe, and the United States are deeply entrenched in Africa. But few admit that it is Africans themselves who provide the greatest potential for development.
Teddy Ruge, founder of Hive Colab, a Ugandan-based innovation incubator that is part of iHub, a nexus of innovation and technology for all of Africa, explains how the tech market in Africa is exploding.
I sat down with Teddy to discuss his views on development in Africa.
FLETCHER: We’re very pleased to have you here and to be a guest of Busboys and Poets, where we’re conducting this discussion.
Thank you. Good morning.
TEDDY RUGE, DIRECTOR, HIVE COLAB: Good morning to you.
FLETCHER: So, technology incubator–tell me about this. I mean, I see this term. It doesn’t register. What does that mean?
RUGE: In the context of where we’re working, my incubator, Hive Colab, is in Kampala, Uganda. We started it as a space to allow young technologists to have an environment in which they could collaborate with each other, hassle-free, to allow them to explore, stretch their legs within the technology space.
We’re putting this space in the context of Uganda is one of the youngest countries in the world. Half of our population is under the age of 15. But we have a massive adoption of mobile devices. Many of them, their first experience with the internet is on a mobile device. And a lot of them are growing up with this technology as part of their life. And a lot of them, their future is going to be in this technology space. So we’re creating a space that allows them to stretch their entrepreneurial legs and begin creating apps, begin looking at how they fit into the digital economies, not only as innovators, but as participants, as everyday people who are consuming information through the digital lens.
FLETCHER: Is Africa a site for the production of new technology, in your opinion?
RUGE: Oh, absolutely. If you’re not playing in the African tech space right now, or even in the African entrepreneurial space, you’re going to be missing out.
FLETCHER: In what sense?
RUGE: Well, it’s the last–and, you know, Africa is definitely not monolithic.
RUGE: I mean, there are pockets of success, pockets of struggle here and there. It is a billion people, 54 countries. But the general sense is that it is one of the most untapped areas of investment. I think the latest figures show that it is going to be the fastest growing through 2016, at 4.5 percent GDP, and just ahead of Asia. And that’s going to continue to grow.
The demographics for Uganda stretch out to the rest of the continent, 50 percent under the age of 15, 70 percent under the age of 30, massive adoption in mobile uptake. So it is wide open for investment and innovation in that space. If you’re not playing that, if you’re not investing in that space, you’re going to miss out.
FLETCHER: But I keep hearing, actually, going back years, that one of the challenges, or one part of the challenge on the continent: lack of land lines, lack of fiber optics, that the adoption of mobile technology, particularly cell phones, was in the absence of the technological infrastructure. I mean, is that true? Is that accurate?
RUGE: Well, mobile technology allowed us to leapfrog over that, over the adoption of land lines. If you think about just the sheer size of the continent itself–and as I said, it’s 54 countries; Asia, United States, China can all fit in the entire continent with space to spare. So laying that kind of infrastructure for land lines is not feasible.
What wireless technology allowed us to do is to catch up to the rest of the world. There are more mobile devices on the continent than there are in the United States and Europe. So that alone, that adoption alone, has allowed us to catch up to the rest of the world. And in terms of innovation, I think over the next few years that platform is going to allow us to really compete on par in talent, in innovation. And if we are able to create tools that can solve everyday problems for us, there’s nothing that’s stopping us from making technology that expands and is usable to the rest of the world.
FLETCHER: Now, you sound very optimistic. And one of the concerns that I would have is that at the same time that what you’re describing is underway, there still is a major reliance on the extractive industries in Africa for economic development.
RUGE: We need massive changes in policy allowing for better business environments for individuals. We need better education, massively better education, if we’re really going to take advantage of the emerging digital economies from a small entrepreneurial perspective, small business perspective. We need better governance. We need–I mean, the list goes on. We need all of that. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be created as we go along. Yeah.
FLETCHER: Project Diaspora–what is that?
RUGE: So, in the early days of social media and in my getting into this development space, I was really interested in what were members of the African diaspora doing for their respective homelands. For me, around 2007, 2008, I was really interested in what was happening within Uganda’s diaspora space. And social media allowed me to discover other members of the diaspora who were doing very interesting projects. So I started writing about that.
And it was through that project that I began to highlight what other members of the diaspora were doing, both in Uganda and across the continent. And it really served as a platform for figuring out, what did I want to do, and where did I belong in that space? I’ve been in corporate America for a short time, and I was very disfranchised. I didn’t want to be there. I really wanted to contribute to the development of the continent. So that was step number one. And that allowed me to test out various projects in terms of development, entrepreneurial activity, to begin writing about the emerging technology space, and eventually found a couple of niches where I thought I could contribute really well.
FLETCHER: Teddy Ruge, thank you very much.
RUGE: It’s a pleasure.
FLETCHER: Our pleasure. Thanks.
RUGE: Thank you.
FLETCHER: And thank you for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. We’ll be back soon.
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