Not Over Yet: Collectively Bargaining The NFL's Personal Conduct Policy

Not Over Yet: Collectively Bargaining The NFL's Personal Conduct Policy

With the majority of football coverage shifting toward almost impossible to follow roster overhauls, it would seem as though the NFL is back on track and that its owners and players have exited their collective bargaining corners for at least the next decade.

Well, unfortunately for those of you already worn out by this sort of stuff, certain matters do remain open for debate.

Though teams are once again allowed to make moves and the first week of football is still scheduled for September 11th, 2011, there exists still a great deal of uncertainty regarding some of the non-financial aspects of the NFL's CBA.

See, specifically, the National Football League's Personal Conduct Policy.
As reported by NBC Sports' Mike Florio this past Tuesday, once the players vote to officially reconstitute their union, they'll be heading right back to the bargaining table. Still on the docket for the NFL and its players' association are the issues of drugs, steroids and, of course, personal conduct. Per Florio:

As to the personal conduct policy, NFLPA spokesman George Atallah addressed on Tuesday’s PFT Live the question of whether the resurrected union will allow the league to impose discipline for off-field incidents occurring during the work stoppage.

“Something tells me our members are going to tell us to deal with that pretty aggressively,” Atallah said.  “I’ll just leave it at that.”

While this isn't the first time the players have publicly opposed commissioner Roger Goodell's authority to fine or suspend, the stakes now are growing increasingly high. Negotiations over the future of the conduct policy will have to answer a variety of questions, including whether or not said policy was applicable during the lockout and how it will or should be enforced in the future. But, before jumping too far ahead, we'll start with some background.

How We Got Here
Instituted in 2007 after Adam "Pacman" Jones' then most-recent incident at a Las Vegas nightclub, and one of four Chris Henry arrests in just fourteen months, the personal conduct policy has since functioned as the direct moral arm of commissioner Roger Goodell.

As it's formal wording is a bit lengthy, we won't bore you by restating its every single detail here, though we do encourage you to check out the policy for yourself if you've never had the chance.

While its scope was largely understood in terms of specific criminal activity at its inception, the policy has since evolved into a wholly nebulous, utterly unpredictable, easily assailable calamity of subjective justice. At least, that is, according to some of the players.

Take, for example, the case of Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Though authorities in Milledgeville, Georgia ultimately concluded that they lacked sufficient evidence to charge Roethlisberger for the alleged sexual assault of a 20-year-old college student, Goodell chose to parlay a similar incident involving Big Ben in Lake Tahoe to suspend the two-time Super Bowl winner for a period of six (later reduced to four) games during 2010 season.

Facing criticism for the mere possibility of suspension despite the existence of sustained criminal charges, the commissioner released an April 2010 memorandum meant to clarify the league's—his—position. It reads, in part:

"The Policy makes clear that NFL and club personnel must do more than simply avoid criminal behavior. We must conduct ourselves in a way that 'is responsible, that promotes the values upon which the league is based, and is lawful."

"Whether it involves your team or another, these incidents affect us all -- every investigation, arrest, or other allegation of improper conduct undermines the respect for our league by our fans, lessens the confidence of our business partners and threatens the continued success of our brand."

Where We Are
If you've already spotted a problem or two in the logic, you're not alone. Here is a list of largely reasonable questions that could come up in the latest round of talks:

-- Who decides what is and is not responsible?
-- Are there times—during a lockout, for example—when the conduct policy does not  apply?
-- Where are the opportunities for an appeal?
-- To what end does precedent matter in deciding subsequent punishments?
-- Is it (hypothetically) necessary for the commissioner to (hypothetically) suspend an individual for two games after that same individual (hypothetically) served two years in federal prison?
--Is there any real rhyme or reason for what's going on here?

Let's try to tease some of these questions apart in a way that's at least somewhat neutral.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, Roger Goodell is indeed the man in charge. The conduct policy is his brainchild and arguably the greatest extension of his individual power. As such, it is up to the commissioner to decide what is and is not acceptable by league standards.

In defense of the five suspensions handed out under the policy’s exercise, all five have been incidents involving criminal activity. While some of the alleged crimes were dismissed and the charges eventually dropped, they were all legitimately serious issues, ranging from weapons possession to assault to sexual assault to drug possession to money laundering to dog fighting.

It’s here that we should take heed of Goodell’s aforementioned statement on the league’s public image and its relationship with its business partners. Think that football fans don’t care about what happens off the field? Well, it’s certainly possible and, judging from the collective appetite for football even after the lockout, even probable. But it’s not a risk Goodell is willing to take.

Say what you will about the difference between the leagues themselves, but it’s nearly undeniable that at least some of the downturn in popularity suffered by the National Basketball Association between 1998 and 2008 was because of the public image of its players. If that isn’t totally registering, consider that when Goodell took over the “big job” in replacement of former commissioner Paul Tagliabue in 2006, nine players from the just Cincinnati Bengals alone had been arrested in the preceding twelve months.

It is the commissioner’s job to protect the public image of his league. For better or for worse—and judging by the league’s profitability and popularity over his tenure, the better—he’s trying to protect that All-American, red-white-and-blue-shielded image. But, of course, there has to be some limit to his authority? Right?

Eh, maybe not.

Where We Might Be Headed
The aforementioned Florio article at the top of the post is largely motivated by off-season incidents involving Hines Ward, James Harrison and the Eagles’ own DeSean Jackson. While Ward’s arrest for Driving Under the Influence falls pretty neatly into what is already accepted as a personal conduct violation, Harrison and Jackson’s verbal outbursts exist in an as-yet-unexplored gray area.

The public airing of homosexual slurs and the claim that a prominent linebacker would not piss on his league’s commissioner even if said commissioner was on fire are not ways in which
to positively promote the league. Indeed, it can be and probably will be argued that these acts reflect negatively upon the NFL as a whole.

But, the comments themselves fail to approach anything close to criminal activity. Moreover, they took place during a period in which the players were locked out from the league, and effectively for that time, no longer part of it. Even Ward’s previously clear-cut case—a DUI—is now questionable in light of the labor dispute.

On top of it all—albeit separate from the issue of the lockout and more concerned with the troublesome nature of the policy as a whole—Plaxico Burress may be headed back to the NFL after time served for his infamous nightclub incident. Will he be subject to the same sort of high horse, moral posturing the league undertook when it suspended Vick even after two years in a federal penitentiary? After all, the illegal possession of a firearm surely qualifies as a criminal activity. Any judge in New York will tell you that.

Considering the absurd circumstances surrounding Burress, Goodell now finds himself open to criticism and claims of inconsistency regardless of the choice he will ultimately make. If he's sympathetic to Burress, why is Plax so privileged to avoid the mandatory moral outrage of a brief suspension? On the other hand, if he does choose to punish the former Steeler and Giant, isn't he just burying his head in the sand by ignoring the specifics of the situation? Either way, the commissioner has no one but himself to blame for concocting a scenario in which even he can't win.

Is There a Better Way?
Frankly, all of these matters would be less contentious if there existed a greater level of transparency and shared responsibility within the system. The judge, jury and executioner that is Roger Goodell rubbed the players the wrong way long before the lockout. Now, with the added vitriol of the last six months of labor negotiations and last year’s almost out-of-nowhere fines in the interest of on-field safety, the relationship between the players and the commissioner has gone from bad to worse.

And, while the majority of this post may be about conduct, the fines for violent play are inarguably connected to the greater strife between Goodell and the players. Much like the penalties for off-field behavior, the fines for on-field incidents are similarly motivated; the growing number of players removed from the field on a stretcher is obviously antithetical to league's business interests. Neither sponsors nor fans want to see someone seriously maimed, but is it even possible at this point to curb the violence in football given the size and speed of the modern athlete?

If he’s smart, which he seems to be, and cares about his relationship with the players, which he obviously should, Goodell needs to think long and hard about relinquishing some of his power over both the personal conduct policy and the fines for violent play. As so many of the criticisms hurled against Goodell have echoed the same “you wouldn’t know, you haven’t played the game” sentiment, it’s come time for the commissioner to institute review boards separate from himself for both of the above issues.

In the case of violent play, the commissioner should begin to consider reaching out to a group of ex-players to form a league disciplinary board. That way, not only is the power out of Goodell's hands, but now up to the judgment of a multiple person panel. Though nearly all disciplinary decisions will still be met with some level of skepticism when weighed against one another, a group separate from Goodell may help to quell some of the backlash hurled toward him directly and produce a greater degree of legitimacy in the handing down of punishments.

Still, for as easy as that sounds to fix, the employment of the conduct policy will more than likely remain a sticky issue. Evidencing the Supreme Court's “I know it when I see it” pornography precedent isn’t going to be enough for the players any longer.  Stricter guidelines and an independent arbiter may be necessary in determining when the conduct policy is and is not applicable. The downside to such action, however, comes in the inevitable loopholes to be found in binding legal language; language that could potentially leave the league hostage to its own flawed bargaining.

Consequently, for as heated as the talks over the financial portions of the CBA proved, the yet-to-be-decided issues of violent play and personal conduct may wind up even more controversial. Though the players would do well remind themselves that Goodell really does have the best interests of the league at heart, they may be even wiser to recall that which may pave their own road to hell.

Opportunity with Eagles, talk with Le'Veon Bell has Kenjon Barner hungry

052516-reich-comments-webbestvideo3_1920x1080_692990531733.jpg

Opportunity with Eagles, talk with Le'Veon Bell has Kenjon Barner hungry

Kenjon Barner is hungry, literally and figuratively.

After spending 2014 on the Eagles' practice squad and getting just 37 offensive touches in a crowded backfield last season, the running back is looking to carve out a bigger role with the Birds in 2016. DeMarco Murray is gone, and with Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles away from the team earlier this week at practice, it was Barner getting the first-team reps. 

Mathews missed Tuesday's practice with an illness, and Sproles hasn't reported to the Eagles' voluntary workouts, which become mandatory from June 7-9.

So Barner, the 27-year-old RB Chip Kelly coached in college and traded for prior to the 2014 season, has had some opportunities to impress new head coach Doug Pederson. And Barner wants to make clear that despite his Oregon ties — he's one of three remaining players from Oregon that Kelly brought to the Eagles, along with Josh Huff and Taylor Hart — he's not only here because of the coach he outlasted.

"It's a great opportunity," Barner said, "just a fresh start. Go out there and continue to show what you can do, continue to make plays and constantly have your name in the coaches' minds.

"For anybody who says, 'Oh, that's Chip Kelly's guy,' no, I'm a football player. I wouldn't be here if I wasn't a football player. I wouldn't have gotten drafted if I wasn't a football player.

"It's not a chip on my shoulder. Yes I went to Oregon, yes I played under Chip, I love Chip to death, but I'm a football player. I create my own lane. I'm not gonna let anybody place me in a box and tell me what I am."

At 5-9/195, Barner doesn't fit perfectly into the box of a classic bell cow back. He's more of a Sproles-lite, a shifty back who can catch passes out of the backfield. He showed that last preseason, when he rushed 13 times for 91 yards and a touchdown and also caught four passes for 72 yards, including a 50-yarder.

That kind of backfield versatility is necessary in the offense Pederson brings over from the Chiefs, the offense Andy Reid ran for many years here. In Kansas City, Pederson and Reid utilized their running backs often in the passing game, just as they did with the Eagles. Even when Jamaal Charles went down for the year after five games last season, that trend continued with Charcandrick West catching 20 passes and DeAnthony Thomas getting some grabs out of the backfield.

"I fit whatever role they want me to fit," Barner said. "Whether it's catching balls out of the backfield or whatever it is. Jamaal Charles is a great back and if I can do half of what he's done throughout his career I'd be lucky."

Barner has patiently waited three years for this kind of opportunity. Mathews and Sproles are expected to be the Eagles' top-two ball-carriers, but both are getting older and neither is an every-down back, Mathews because of all the injuries and Sproles because he's more of a situational matchup nightmare. So even with the addition of fifth-round pick Wendell Smallwood, there should be some opportunities for Barner, who has done all he can to further his own development.

"Just older, more mature, more professional than I've been in the past," Barner said. "Understanding the offense, really going home and studying, really knowing what my responsibility is.

"For me, man, it's just about being mature, growing. I feel like if you're not growing, what are you doing? You constantly have to grow, have to evolve, not only physically but mentally. That's kind of where I'm at.

"I did take it seriously last year, but having the opportunity to go through what I've been through, go home and be with my family, have guys like (Chris) Maragos, I talk to him on a daily basis about football, about life. Sproles constantly being in my ear still — he may not be here but he's still in my ear. It's a lot of things coming together."

One change Barner made this offseason was to his diet. It came from a conversation with the NFL's best all-around running back, Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell.

"I had a talk with Le'Veon Bell back in January," Barner said. "I spoke with him and we were just talking about eating. I'm the type of guy that if I see somebody and I see a change in them and I see it's positive, I have no problem telling you, 'I like what you're doing, tell me how you did it.' I reached out to him because I've been seeing pictures of him and I've seen his body change. We came in the draft together and he's always been a big guy, but he hasn't been that cut, that ripped. So I reached out to him like, 'Yo, what did you do, what's your diet, what have you been taking, what are you doing and what are you not doing?' Just really trying to pick his brain. 

"I'm trying to be great. And if I see you doing something that's pushing you to the next level I'm gonna ask you how you did it. 

"I'm not gonna say I've been perfect. I'm just really big on sweets, I have a sweet tooth like no other and I can thank my dad for that — growing up he always had candy and snacks by his bed so I would always sneak in his room and eat them. That's the hardest thing, that's like my kryptonite."

Sweets weren't a part of the Chip Kelly regimen, that's for sure. But with the coach who brought Barner to the Eagles now in San Francisco, it's more on the players to keep themselves on track, both in the kitchen and with their sleep schedule.

"It's different, a lot slower, obviously," Barner said of practices under Pederson. "Is that good? I mean, you don't get as tired. But you're not in as good of shape as you were in Chip's offense. Chip's offense, you have to be in tip-top shape. So we're still getting there, still certain times when we're tired, times when you shouldn't be tired. So you have to do a lot of the conditioning on your own outside of here.

"Today, [Pederson] asked us who's getting eight hours of sleep. Everybody cares about it because you want your players to be at their best and you can't be at your best if you're not getting enough sleep, (but they're) two completely different people."

So last night's Union game was pretty crazy

052516_union_orlando_hl_webrefframe_1.jpg

So last night's Union game was pretty crazy

When the Union played in Orlando last year, the game was a relatively dull scoreless draw.

And for most of Wednesday’s game between the two teams in the same venue, it looked like history was going to repeat itself.

That’s when the Kaká hit the fan.

Here’s a quick recap of all the craziness that happened in the second half of the if-you-turned-away-you-probably-missed-something 2-2 draw:

  • Tranquillo Barnetta, inspired by a story I wrote about him a day earlier, scored his second goal this season -- both of which have come against Orlando

  • Warren Creavalle was taken down from behind in the box but no penalty kick was given and no red card was shown, leading head coach Jim Curtin to call the sequence “embarrassing”

  • Orlando City responded with two rapid-fire semi-controversial goals, scoring the first after Philly goalie Andre Blake was wiped out and the second on a shot Blake appeared to make the save on but the ref ruled was in (where’s goal-line technology when you need it??)

  • Ken Tribbett, the pride of Drexel, scored his first MLS goal after early collecting his first MLS assist -- after only being called into the game because of an injury to Josh Yaro

  • Orlando’s David Mateos was shown a straight red card in the final minute but Barnetta couldn’t convert a close-range free kick to win it

  • Fabinho killed a guy with a trident

To think all but one of those things happened in one half is pretty wild -- and that doesn’t even factor in several other cards, calls, no-calls and a pretty cool set piece the Union ran.

http://twitter.com/KevinKCBS3/status/735820306242232320

Oh, and almost lost in all the commotion, was the fact that Andre Blake gave us another memorable moment in a season full of them when he saved a first-half penalty kick from freaking Kaká.

https://www.twitter.com/MLS/status/735626554902859776

In the end, Curtin couldn’t get over some of the refereeing decisions, particularly the no-call on Creavalle -- which, as you can see, was in fact quite bad.

https://www.twitter.com/TotalMLS/status/735636659576930305

Still, the fact that the Union escaped a tough place like Orlando despite the ref and while playing without three of their top playmakers (Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueria and Ilsinho) is quite a nice achievement that you would never have seen with past Philly teams.

It also moved their unbeaten streak to six heading into Saturday’s showdown between the first-place team in the East (your Philadelphia Union) and the first-place team in the West (the Colorado Rapids) -- who you might recall were two of the worst teams in MLS last season.

See ya in the rockies.

https://www.twitter.com/KevinKCBS3/status/735653796358049792 

Let the bidding begin for Mike Trout, whom Angels must move at some point

052516-phillies-resilience-webrefframe_1.jpg

Let the bidding begin for Mike Trout, whom Angels must move at some point

Yes, the Angels are going to trade Mike Trout.

It may not happen this year or even next year, but eventually Angels GM Billy Eppler will accept the reality of the bleak future ahead for his franchise. Albert Pujols, who has five years and $140 million remaining on his contract after this season, has taken the baton from Ryan Howard for the worst contract in baseball. Good luck getting out of that deal. Other than the increasingly rare Pujols hot streak, they have nobody equipped to protect Trout in the lineup. 

The starting rotation has been patched together, with both Garrett Richards and Andrew Heaney going down with elbow injuries early this season. Unless one of those guys comes back healthy, there isn’t a No. 1 or No. 2 starter on the roster. Theoretically, the Angels will have money to spend on the free-agent market with both C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver coming off the books after the season. But with Andrew Cashner and Jeremy Hellickson the likely headliners on the pitching market, a quick fix for the rotation seems unlikely. 

The 2017 free-agent market for hitters isn’t much better. Should Yoenis Cespedes opt out of his contract with the Mets, he could provide a potent presence behind Trout, but there will be stiff competition for his services and he’ll be in line for a massive payday. 

Toronto’s once-dynamic duo of Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista should be available, but both appear to be trending downward. Giving either player a long-term deal is a risky investment at best. 

Building around the young players in the organization isn’t a viable option. By all accounts, the Angels have the worst farm system in baseball. You can check out those rankings here or here. This is a franchise in dire need of an infusion of young talent. 

We’ve seen the Phillies in a similar situation with Cole Hamels. Once there was no way forward to win with him, the only reasonable option was to trade him. Even the most ardent Hamels supporters have to admit now that moving him made sense.  

Yes, Trout is only 24 years old and is the best all-around player in baseball. The Angels should certainly explore every possible option to build a winner around the South Jersey native, who is in the second season of a six-year deal that will pay him $119 million from 2017 through 2020. But the franchise is trending in the wrong direction. If they cannot honestly see a path to contending with him, they should look to move him and jump-start a rebuild. There will be no shortage of suitors. 

So ignore the notion that you never trade an “inner-circle Hall of Famer,” which Trout certainly is on track to become. He is signed through 2019 and the clock is ticking. 

Let the bidding begin.