Samir Suleiman; Proving Hard Work Will Pay Off in the NFL

Mr. Suleiman graduated from James Madison University with a B.S. in Sport Management. He started his career in 1997 at the NFL Management Council where he analyzed player contracts and monitored club compliance with the salary cap. Then he worked at the Jacksonville Jaguars from 1998-1999 as Manager of Contract Information.  From there, he segued into work at the Rams in 2000 as the Director of Football Administration. In 2005, he was promoted to Director of Football Operations until 2009. Then from 2013-2019, Mr. Suleiman worked for the Pittsburgh Steelers as Football Administration Coordinator. Currently, Mr. Suleiman works for the Carolina Panthers as the team’s Director of Player Negotiations and Salary Cap Manager. He works alongside the General Manager, coaching staff and ownership on player procurement, strategic planning, and compliance with League rules. It was an honor to interview Mr. Suleiman and find out about his career path. Mr. Suleiman is truly a role model for other minorities trying to break into the industry. I really enjoyed speaking with Mr. Suleiman.  Thank you, Mr. Suleiman, for this wonderful opportunity.

Q: Would you mind sharing your story? What inspired you to pursue this line of work?

A: “I was born in Washington, DC and raised in Gaithersburg, Maryland. When I was 11 years old, my parents decided to move to Luray, Virginia. I was recruited by JMU (James Madison University) to play football and I decided to go there partially because it was close to family and they could come watch the games. Originally, I thought I wanted to study accounting, but I soon determined that it wasn’t for me. At JMU you must officially declare your major halfway through your sophomore year. I asked my roommates what their majors were. One of them said ‘sports management’, and I was instantly intrigued. I thought it might be fun to run my own gym. I went to see my academic advisor the next day and he said that I needed a minor in business for a degree in sport management, but luckily, all the business courses that I had taken to that point were in line with what I needed.  Unfortunately, he told me they didn’t have any contacts in the NFL or NBA, but he gave me a directory of main addresses and phone numbers, so I started mailing out as many resumes and cover letters as I possibly could. I had my exit interview with my head coach that told me to look into the League Office. I had never heard of the League Office before, so I sent my resume and I got a response from someone that worked at the Management Council. The next thing I knew, I was invited to come up and interview for a position there.

I knew I wanted to stay in football, and the Management Council was a good way to learn the business from the ground up. I also wanted the challenge of moving to New York. I played the song New York, New York by Frank Sinatra and the words “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere” really stuck with me. I was going to be taking on New York City at the age of 21.

During my time at the Management Council, I worked with the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the salary cap that were only four years old at the time. I worked on the first CBA extension. I also worked on player personnel rules. A lot of GMs don’t actually know the rules, so they call the League office to ask questions and I was one of the people that would answer the phone and their questions.

During my year at the League office, I attended the 1998 Combine where I met the GM of the Jacksonville Jaguars that later offered me a job. I knew I wanted a Super Bowl ring and they were an up and coming playoff team, so I ended up taking the job with the Jags. Next the Rams, that had just won the Super Bowl, asked if I wanted to interview with them. I ended up being offered the job and accepting it on the spot. This was one of the best moves of my career. I learned something new every day, from scouting to budgeting. During my time [there], I was able to witness the “Greatest Show on Turf”. After leaving the Rams and before moving to the Steelers, I worked as an Expert Witness in a case where a football player, Al Wilson, sued a neurosurgeon for the Denver Broncos. The neurosurgeon ended up winning the case. I went on to the Steelers for 7 seasons, before coming to Charlotte last year. Mr. Tepper wanted to rebuild the organization. I was hired one week after the head coach, Matt Rhule. I was up for the challenge, I wanted to help an organization build their new culture. I have been to a Conference Championship Game with all the teams I’ve worked with and it would be awesome to go with a fourth team. What inspired me to pursue this line of work was my love for the game of football. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to play in the NFL, and I knew I didn’t want to coach. I thought I wanted to be a scout originally. I liked the challenge of finding the hidden gems. However, no one is hidden anymore. I also liked the Management Council because they run the League and have to know all of the League rules.

Q: What was the most important or influential class you took during your time at James Madison University in their sports management program?

A: “I would have to say Business Law and Human Anatomy. Human Anatomy was a pre-med class, so it was tough for students that weren’t studying pre-med. I thought to myself: why do I need to know this?  But today, I have daily conversations with the medical staff, so it helps me to know exactly what they are talking about.”

Q: When you graduated from James Madison University, what type of career did you aspire to?

A: “Something in sports management, either at the NBA or [the] NFL. I actually had more interest from the NBA. I ended up accepting the job with the Management Council at the NFL, and I decided that I would stay until I was offered something with a team.  I have two career goals: winning a Super Bowl and becoming a GM. Football is very competitive, and I would go anywhere for the best opportunity.”

Q: What was the most significant turning point in your career path?

A: “Going to work for Jay Zygmunt at the Rams. He is my mentor. No one knows more about the business than him, so I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor and friend.”

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in this type of work? Where would you suggest they start?

A: “Start with a proper education. Get a degree in sport management or a law degree or an MBA. The last two degrees will help to open doors. It’s never too early to network. You should try to obtain an internship every summer, as they will help you stand out from other aspiring students. One that really helped me was Art Monk’s football camps. I worked camps like his throughout college up and down the East Coast for a variety of professional players which helped me to not be star struck.”

Q: When building your roster, what do you look for in a player? How much do analytics as opposed to “the eye test” or character attributes matter?

A: “With the ‘eye test’ we look to see if the player is big and fast. There are additionally position specific attributes that are important. We have actually been using analytics since the 1970s. Analytics are a good tool to use predictively, but we always like to see production. I have always valued production over potential. I want someone who can perform their duties. I also want good people, a good citizen with mental toughness that cares about the culture of winning.”

Q: How do you balance keeping big stars like McCaffrey, while trying to have enough salary cap room for other players?

A: “When the organization’s decision makers get together, we decide which positions are most important for our system at that time and for the future. We decide on our core players and focus on securing them. For example, a fullback is not a core player. You have to decide where your stars are. Some teams may have them all on offense, and other teams may have them all on defense. If the middle linebacker is the heart of the team, we want to ensure we lock up that position, compared to a safety that might not be the heart. We just want to make sure the safety is competent and motivated to play the game.”

Q: How do you ensure the Panthers stay in compliance with the League rules? Do you work closely with the League office?

A: “I stay in touch with the League office, especially when there is a rule change. I try to anticipate issues that might arise. I usually ask if anyone has any questions, and this coaching staff is awesome.  They ask more questions and don’t ever assume they know the answers. I get questions, for example, about the roster, the off-season program, and COVID.”

Q: What does a typical day look like?

A: “It varies depending whether or not we are in season. I am an early riser, so I like to get a workout in before I head to work. I like to start my day by reviewing all of the previous day’s transactions – for example, other teams’ depth charts and what roster moves were made the day before. I also attend lots of staff meetings and practices, and I like to watch film of different free agents and college players. During the off season, I am also very busy. There is lots of travel involved. When we are in season and the roster is all set, it is a bit slower and I can take time to evaluate different college players. However, this season we had a lot of injuries, so it’s been constantly busy trying to set our roster.”

Q: What do you think are the most effective methods that will allow the sports industry access more talent from diverse backgrounds?

A: “The League office and the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation provide each team with a list of qualified candidates for coaching and other positions. However, it is up to the decision makers. They can’t look at the name, for example-my name, and make an assumption. The NFL has done a good job bringing in a lot more minorities and women, though the NFL is still behind basketball and baseball, but those two are much more global sports, so it’s situationally easier to promote diversity.”

Q: Can you share with us your favorite team(s)?

A: “Growing up I was a big Washington Redskins fan. When I got to the League office, I was told I had to be unbiased. But now I root for whichever team I am working with at the moment. I also really liked the Washington Bullets growing up. I enjoy going to Lakers games. I went to many when Kobe was playing. My favorite baseball team is the Baltimore Orioles. Lastly, the team I root for in the World Cup is Argentina, because my mom was from there.”

Q: Did/do you play a sport? Which one(s)?

A: “I played four sports in high school: football, basketball, baseball and soccer. Then I went on to play football at the college and semi-pro level.”

Q: What is your favorite movie?

A: “Braveheart.”

Q: The NFL has been cited occasionally as the “No Fun League”. What are your thoughts on work-life balance as a team executive?

A: “It’s important. I did a horrible job when I was young and single. I didn’t think I could take time off. It took me five years in the industry to learn the balance. Now I think it’s super important to have balance and be able to have dinner with my wife every night and take our family walks with our dog. You need to find a work life balance. One of my biggest regrets was sacrificing so much time.”

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job? What do you find the most challenging?

A: “The most rewarding part of the job is winning. The food tastes better and the air is crisper. Victory Monday is very rewarding, because I played a role in fielding a winning team. You also have to keep the idea of winning a Super Bowl in mind.

The most challenging part is managing all the egos.”

Q: What impacts do you expect the new media contracts to have upon the salary cap landscape?

A: “Next year I think it will go up to the low 200s and then it will spike in 2023, but then it will go back to the 10 million per year increase that we usually see.”

Q: Is there something about your responsibilities that others might find surprising or unusual?

A: “All the different rules the League has and all of the different hats that I have to wear in this position. I take time to evaluate the players. I look at film of free agents and college-aged athletes. I want to know what our options are, and have extensive knowledge when we are talking about a specific player.”

Q: Is there any other aspect of your responsibilities or your career path that I have not asked about that you would care to share?

A: “I think wearing all the different hats is a huge part of my job today. The NFL is a relationship business, however, I am very proud that I received all of my positions strictly on merit. I didn’t previously know the person who was hiring me. Two out of the five jobs were created for me specifically. Lastly, I am one of only a handful of executives who has worked for the NFL League office and three teams that all won their respective divisions and played in Conference Championship Games.”

Thank you, Mr. Suleiman, for this enlightening opportunity. I enjoyed learning about your path and I know it will inspire many.

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