Emmitt Smith ripped Florida for eliminating all DEI roles. Here’s why the NFL legend spoke out.

Emmitt Smith ripped Florida for eliminating all DEI roles. Here’s why the NFL legend spoke out.


Emmitt Smith probably wasn’t the first NFL legend you expected to stick his neck out as such a powerful voice for DEI – diversity, equity and inclusion – as opposition intensifies on many fronts.

Think again.

During a wide-ranging interview with USA TODAY Sports, Smith, 55, passionately doubled down on the scathing statement he issued in March that denounced the elimination of DEI programs at his alma mater, the University of Florida. The school’s action was prompted by a controversial state law passed in 2023 that bans Florida’s public universities and colleges from any spending on DEI.

Smith’s position comes from the thinking that this huge issue is way bigger than himself.

“When I see them destroying DEI for the sake of politics…it’s not even common sense,” Smith said. “This is just sheer out of spite and sheer power.

“At the end of the day, this country was built on people fighting for what is right for everybody, not just a select few. And with that fight, and with the University of Florida being as visible as it is, it irked me. To the fullest. Because I remember the time when our president at the university would stand up and say, ‘Nah, we’re the University of Florida. We’re going to be here a lot longer than you, (Gov.) Ron DeSantis; a lot longer than you, Jeb Bush; we’re going to be here a lot longer than any other governor that tries to push something of this magnitude down the throats of so many Americans and so many Florida citizens.’ To me, that’s a problem.”

What compelled the former Dallas Cowboys star to issue his statement?

“One, being an alumnus and having contributed as much as I did on the football field and to walk away with a University of Florida degree and feeling I’m a part of the university from afar, and still at heart, I was extremely disappointed,” said Smith, who has flourished in the real estate business in the 20 years since his NFL career ended. “Because when I was in college, and everywhere I’ve been, they always talked about leadership…and how we needed to become leaders – especially athletes.”

If that doesn’t provide the sense that one of the Gators’ most famous figures is rather steamed with his school, just ask him to reflect what it might have been like if college football players during his era in the late 1980s had received money from the type of name, image and likeness (NIL) agreements now allowed in college sports.

“Bro, I want my reparations right now from the University of Florida,” Smith said. “I want to send their (expletive) a bill. I want interest on mine. Because I know one thing: When I was in that stadium – and I hate to talk about myself, but the system has forced me to talk about it because we couldn’t get NIL (payments) – running up and down that field with Cedric Smith leading the way with my great offensive linemen blocking for me, when you looked up in those stands you saw a whole lot of E. Smith jerseys up there. E. Smith 22s. You can look at the old videos and see how many jerseys were walking around. And I didn’t receive one red cent.

“So, let’s not talk about dismantling DEI at a time I think DEI happens to be a consequence of NIL. You get one, they take the other one away. It’s strategic.”

Smith’s attempt to connect the between DEI and NIL is a bit of a stretch when considering that the overwhelmingly majority of people affected by DEI extends way beyond athletics – a point that Smith makes himself.

Then again, don’t stop him. He’s on a roll. And it’s no wonder that the three-time Super Bowl winner suspects there’s some connection, considering that for the two highest-revenue college sports, Black athletes represented 54% of Division 1 basketball players and 48% of D-1 football players in 2023, according to an NCAA database. Then there’s the apparent movement to eliminate the spirit of DEI on so many levels. Florida is hardly alone. At least 30 states have introduced or passed legislation to restrict or regulate DEI initiatives. And last year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that restricted race-conscious college admissions.

Meanwhile, in the corporate world, a growing number of companies have pulled back DEI initiatives that were instituted after the heinous death of George Floyd in 2020.

“All of that went by the wayside,” Smith said, referring to the DEI commitment in some corners of the corporate environment. “In other words, they said, ‘This is for the moment.’ And again, that just goes to show you that they really didn’t mean it. It’s not in their heart to do what’s right. It’s in their heart to keep the system going the way it is. So, anyone making that decision, they were never for it, never for equality. And some of them weren’t doing it before George Floyd. So, what makes you think they are going to do it now? They’re trying to get rid of something that was a pipeline to opening up the opportunities, even for small and minority businesses.”

Smith, who lives in the Dallas area, holds the NFL’s all-time record for career rushing yards (18,355) and was a first-ballot choice for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Yet for all of his glory as one of the greatest running backs ever, his perspective as a businessman provided another layer of credibility as he discussed the impact of DEI. He mentioned challenges encountered or observed in construction projects.

“There’s a lot of talk, a lot of rhetoric, and I’ve seen how some of this stuff works,” Smith said. “I’ve seen where you have infrastructure projects around the DFW area, and the same four major companies are the lead construction folks on those sites. The limitations that minority companies have is not only working capital but also the capacity to get on those jobs.”

He wants young athletes to understand that, too, as they process decisions on where to attend school. He thinks they should think twice about attending schools – like Florida, for example – that don’t have DEI programs and other initiatives that can have impact beyond athletics.

What’s his message to student athletes?

“If you are going to go to a university, make sure you go to one that’s open-minded,” said Smith, who grew up in Pensacola, Florida, and starred at Escambia High School. “Don’t always think about yourself. And when you think about others, think about the decision the University of Florida just made when it comes down to the DEI program. It could impact your family. It could impact your father and mother, your sister or your homie that’s starting a business, who wants to do business in the state of Florida.

“Even here in Texas, if they started to dismantle programs that give you an opportunity to work with a Procter & Gamble, a … Walmart or someone like that, that becomes a big issue. Because DEI helped a lot of people get to a place, and they’ve been able to turn around and help other folks.”

By the same token, Smith doesn’t hold back with a warning for his alma mater. He wonders whether a lack of “diversity of thought in the room” would prevent the potential for the school to help produce “a multi-billionaire who wants to give back to the school. But you isolated them because you are not open.

“That’s a problem for the university and a problem for every student-athlete that comes through there,” he added. “Because they really don’t have their best interest at heart. They only want you to do one thing for them, and that is to generate excitement and enthusiasm all around sports and entertainment, to help them raise capital so they can continue to build monuments around there of people that don’t look like you or I.”

In a state where Black residents constitute 17% of the population, according to the NAACP, fewer than 5% of the students at the University of Florida are Black. This, against the backdrop of Florida’s flowing athletic revenues. A USA TODAY Sports analysis ranked Florida’s athletic department eighth in the nation during the 2021-22 school year with revenues that exceeded $190.4 million.

“So, tell me, University of Florida, where have you grown?” Smith said. “Outside of just taking advantage of the successes that Urban Meyer had on the football field, the successes that Steve Spurrier had on the football field, the successes the basketball team had with Joakim Noah and all those guys when they won the national championship. Built up all this stuff around the university, yet you refused to address the biggest issue: How can we get minority enrollment up?

“How can we help our other African American and Latino students around the country get into this great university? To me, taking that DEI component away says you get to make all the decisions you want and not include people who can also have a significant impact on the university.”

No, this doesn’t sound like the man who was such a major reason why the Cowboys won three Super Bowls during a four-year during the 1990s. At least not when it came to how he expressed himself publicly. During his heyday, Smith wasn’t the one to use his platform as one of the NFL’s biggest stars to boost causes as a social activist.

Lord knows, he might have. A consummate pro with a squeaky-clean image, Smith was one of the league’s premier pitchmen as he collected four NFL rushing titles, plus NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP awards on his journey to Canton.

Like many high-profile athletes from his era, though, Smith steered clear from sticky issues – even as he embraced a certain social consciousness.

Why now? Smith explained that his perspective has evolved over time.

“First of all, a lot of it I had to learn along the way,” he said. “And give the University of Florida credit for (me) having my eyes opened and being aware of what’s going on and not just sticking my head in the sand and concentrating strictly on football and not thinking about my fellow citizens. Whether it’s Black, white, Hispanic, it doesn’t matter to me. Equality is straight across the board, the way I see it.

“But what happens is that you grow and start to mature in the world and start to see that there are different components that go beyond just the game you’re playing. It also impacts the lives of many people that are not playing the game. That’s the kicker.”

Smith’s traits as a football player were marked by the details and intentionality. That’s still apparent as he champions the merits of DEI. That is sensed with his voice as it was with the eye-opening statement that elicited much feedback.

“If you know me, you know I’m not going to just throw something out there that doesn’t mean much to me,” he said. “Things that are really impactful not only to my community, but also beyond my community. People think it’s just about us. But DEI impacts women as much as it does African-Americans, Latinos and any other ethnicity. It impacts all of us.”

A point that Smith is undoubtedly willing to run with.

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