As the wide world of sports continues to navigate the COVID-19 crisis, circumstances surrounding the pandemic are leading organizations to consider major changes. One of the most influential voices driving changes in organized sports is DeMaurice Smith, the Executive Director of the NFLPA (National Football League Players Association). He gained fame as the leader of the players’ union during the 2011 NFL lockout, which led to his first major collective bargaining agreement (CBA) as executive director.

The CBA that he fought for then resulted in an additional $1 billion for retired players, increased revenue sharing, and improved safety, among other considerations. The new CBA, approved and signed at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, expands the playoff field by two teams, raises players’ minimum salaries, and increases total revenue sharing to 48% and potentially more. Smith’s hardnosed approach to negotiating reflects his background as a trial lawyer—not to mention his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Virginia School of Law.

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In 2012, Smith returned to his alma mater as the keynote for a symposium titled “The State of Sports Law,” where he argued strongly in favor of the necessity for sports to treat their athletes as humans first. That includes improved medical care for players who are injured both on and off the field in a sport where careers can end at a moment’s notice. The 2011 CBA that he fought for put players’ health ahead of franchise and team needs, marking an important distinction: NFL players are not disposable.

Smith continues to fight for improved player health benefits, and as the coronavirus pandemic slowly wanes, he is supporting efforts to limit the amount of unnecessary contact to which players are exposed during the preseason. He advocates for players to stand up to their team owners in favor of their own health as opposed to the billionaires’ bottom line. At a time when cannabis is being decriminalized in many states and is often seen as an alternative to opioids in treating pain and trauma, Smith pushed for changes to the NFL’s drug policy. The new CBA eliminates suspensions for positive marijuana tests and makes other provisions to ensure the league takes no hasty actions.

Now, Smith is advocating for a widely-supported overhaul of the “student-athlete” restrictions in the NCAA, where players risk their health and careers bringing in revenue for the school—yet are being completely uncompensated and left on their own in worst-case scenarios. With a voice like Smith’s on their side, student-athletes might finally get what they deserve.