On Thursday of NFL Draft week, NFL Players Association Executive Director deMaurice Smith addressed a group of media at Google headquarters in New York, and a few thousand other interested parties via a live stream, on the challenges of the organization. Behind him on a series of screens weren’t images of his players or even logos of the PA, the NFL and the Draft.
They were rotating grainy shots of immigrants and buildings of long ago New York. The images seemed displaced at first; perhaps a mistake, or some historical reference to the SoHo building where the event was taking place. However as Smith continued to talk, discussing the state of his players and the ability for technology to keep us informed today, the pictures came more into focus and their true purpose was revealed.
The images were of the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire, one of the worst industrial disasters in the Nation’s history, and a seminal moment in the history of the union movement in the U.S. Dozens of immigrant workers, many of them women, died when a fire broke out in the building and women could not escape because fire exits were locked. The working conditions were deplorable, and the lack of a union voice, collective bargaining and the ability to have someone watching out for the needs of the worker doomed many, and forever changed the face of business in the United States.
That story, probably new to several in the room, is the first story Smith said he tells to NFL players coming into the league. While maybe a bit extreme to some, it clearly spells out the need for why a union exists and what role a union, the NFLPA in this case, can play for its members. It is not talking about dollars and drug testing, it is about health and well-being, and in this day and age the NFLPA mantra is about protecting the long term health issues of its players.
Why would Smith use such an extreme story to get his message across? It shows the value of the narrative to weave together the issues in the bigger picture. An audience is expecting to hear preaching (he mentioned several times his roots coming from the Baptist ministry) about the game and its value are surprised to hear a very real connection to a bigger piece of history…this is not just about football, it is about large issues that tie the athletes to mainstream America and the longtime plight of workers, who unions have helped since the early 1900’s. It gives the listener a greater understanding of his role in the fabric of American labor history not just football, and it makes the listener pause and think about his actions and his or her role.
Now the use of the narrative from the pulpit or the campaign trail is certainly not new, but it is very much a lost art. It is a great tool for leadership, and is one that often gets lost in a world where effectiveness is sometimes based on how well you can get your message across in seconds and characters, and how loud you can shout above the din of those yelling around you. Narrative usage, when done correctly, gives the listener a unique takeaway from a conversation, and hopefully inspires though and clearer direction.
One may say in looking back. that to have athletes equating a tragic and momentum changing moment in the history of labor to what they are going through in an ongoing give and take with the NFL is a mixed metaphor…they are million dollar celebrities who choose to go out on the field, and certainly are not migrant workers struggling to survive. But at the core the message is compelling in the narrative, and that’s why, at least for internal consumption, to an audience that may not know why labor is important in a big picture, Smith’s thoughts work really well. It also helps, with a preacher’s background, that Smith can deliver the story with the right cadence and in the proper context of what his mission is…to work with, support and protect professional football players.
In “sports leadership” there is enough yelling and screaming and boasting by gurus, ambassadors, evangelists and experts. Many of whom can learn from the value of storytelling that leaders like deMaurice Smith and others use. They tie a common message together cleanly and effectively, make the listener think, and leave the audience wondering about what will come next, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the politics.