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.

Several reasons behind Brandon Graham's seemingly sudden emergence

Several reasons behind Brandon Graham's seemingly sudden emergence

With three sacks in three games, Brandon Graham is off to the fastest start of his career by far, already almost halfway to his career high of 6½. Naturally, the Eagles' defensive end is excited about the production, but not nearly as excited as he was with the defense as a whole after a 34-3 romp over the Steelers on Sunday.

"For us, I was just happy we stayed together, we played together and the outcome was good," Graham said postgame. "Hats off to Pittsburgh because we did a lot of planning for them. We respect them a lot.

"I am just happy to get this win and I am happy in the style we did it."

Graham was one of four Eagles players to bring down Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, marking the first time the seventh-year veteran has recorded at least one sack in three consecutive games. In fact, prior to this season, Graham had never posted a sack in Week 1.

For once, the numbers are taking care of themselves for Graham — although that's not what he's focused on.

"Since I've been here, I've never gotten a sack in the first game, and I've never been consistent," Graham said. "I'm just trying to be the leader, go out there, get W's and be relentless."

There are plenty of explanations for Graham's seemingly sudden emergence.

This is only his second season as a full-time player in the NFL after injuries, then depth conspired to keep the 2010 first-round pick on the bench early in his career. Perhaps all he needed was an opportunity. The switch back to a 4-3 defense and wide-nine front no doubt helped rejuvenate Graham's career as well, allowing him to move from outside linebacker back to his natural position at defensive end and focus on rushing the passer.

With Connor Barwin, Vinny Curry and Marcus Smith all rotating in at end, Graham is also being kept fresh. Last season, the Eagles lacked the quality reserves to provide many breathers for Barwin and Graham on the outside.

"It's a great feeling because there's no pressure to hurry up and get back out," Graham said. "I feel like everybody is just as good and there's no drop-off when we come out of there.

"It's definitely going to help us later on in the year. It's been helping now."

There are all sorts of schematic reasons why Graham could finally be on his way to a breakout season. This will be his first full season as a starter at D-end in a 4-3, it's the first time since 2012 he's in a wide-nine and the defense no longer has to be worried about being exhausted by Chip Kelly's offense's uptempo approach.

Graham was also blessed with a new addition to his family during the offseason — a baby girl. The 28-year-old admits that changed his perspective as well, making him want to work even harder toward achieving his goals.

"Just the preparation and then the work this offseason, I took it up to another level," Graham said. "I guess because I had a daughter this offseason, everything is kind of viewed a different way for me.

"I know we have a good defense — that helps out a lot, too. I couldn't ask for a better defense right now."

Clearly, those goals are not individually motivated. Graham wants to be part of something great, and with a dominant performance against the Steelers in Week 3, the Eagles and their defense passed a huge test.

"I feel like we improved," Graham said. "We got a lot better. We stopped a good team, a great team, a well-coached team. Our hats off to them because they made us work this week."

Few people were expecting the Eagles to handle a trendy Super Bowl pick the way they did, and Graham actually prefers it that way.

"I hope we still get overlooked because it feels so good when people are talking the way they did," Graham said. "It added a little fuel. We watched a little bit of the TV (Sunday) morning, and they were just saying how [the Steelers] were going to dog us.

"I'm just happy that we came out and did what we were supposed to do, and I hope we stay the underdog because, for us, nobody gave us a chance and we stayed together. If we stay together in here, that's all that matters."

Through three games, the Eagles lead the NFL in fewest points surrendered with a paltry 27 and rank fourth in yards allowed. They're also tied for third with 10 sacks and tied for seventh with six takeaways.

If the defense stays together the way Graham says they have, how far does he think the Eagles go this season?

"I don't know," Graham said. "If we keep playing like that, there is no ceiling."

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Flyers Notes: Promising performances from young defensemen

Flyers Notes: Promising performances from young defensemen

The most impressive thing about the Flyers' 4-0 preseason win over the Islanders on Tuesday night was the play of the their young defense and the outstanding work by the penalty kill.

Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers each gave a strong accounting of themselves while veteran Andrew MacDonald proved why experience helps with some terrific PK work during an extended five-on-three Islanders power play in the third period.

“Overall, they did a good job,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “I look at some of the opportunities we gave up, especially in the second period, we gave up three or four Grade A opportunities that Mase (goalie Steve Mason) was great on, but I put those on our forwards.

“We’re still not into regular-season form on our play without the puck. I thought as a whole, the group of defensemen did a good job and the young guys in there were good tonight.”

Sanheim had strong plays the entire game from the point and picked up two assists (see highlights). He gets the puck quickly on net and joins the play up front.

“It took me a little bit, even in this game,” Sanheim said. “As I play more, I started to jump up more and you start to see my game more. It’s something I want to bring to this next level.”

Provorov logged 21:43 of ice time following nearly 29 minutes at New Jersey. He had 5:17 on the PK. Some of his clears weren’t deep or hard enough, at times, possibly because of fatigue.

He also took a bad boarding hit on Joshua Ho-Sang in the third period that set up an Isles five-on-three power play. It became extended because of a trip call to Myers but MacDonald did yeoman’s work on the extended PK.

Provorov quarterbacks the first-unit man advantage for now until Shayne Gostisbehere joins the crowd. He had some very skillful passes. The Russian can find the seam up the ice on the breakout quickly and had a no-look, hard pass to Nick Cousins in the second period for a quality one-timer on net.

Expect Provorov to handle the second-unit power play during the season, should he make the roster.

The goals
Although the Flyers, using a better NHL lineup, were lacking for offensive chances early against the Isles' "B" squad, they found their way in the final four minutes of the opening period.

First, Dale Weise had one of those pinball goals as a bouncing puck hit a couple of players in the slot, including goalie Chris Gibson, to make it 1-0 during four-on-four play.

That was the Flyers' first goal of preseason in three games. A little more than a minute later, Wayne Simmonds scored off a rebound just as a Flyers power play ended. Simmonds had two goals in the game, including a wrister from the left circle to open the final period.

Smallish (5-foot-7) — but bullish — centerman Andy Miele, a former Hobey Baker Award winner as college hockey’s top player (Miami-Ohio), made it 3-0, out-battling Thomas Hickey for the rebound of Michael Raffl’s shot.

The shield
Simmonds is wearing a visor for the first time. It’s an experiment for now.

“Everyone is all over me about it,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. It wasn’t too bad tonight. The only thing is trying to track pucks in the sky when you are getting the glare from the lights. A little bit of an adjustment."

He said neither his mother nor girlfriend had pushed him as hard to wear the shield as someone else: “Ron Hextall,” he said flatly. “He gave me a call.”

Because of his tenacious play in the slot where sticks are high and pucks are deflected, a shield makes sense.

“Yeah, I think so, being that front guy and doing work on the PK,” he said. “Getting sticks in lanes like that, the game is really fast and pucks get deflected.

“Sometime you don’t know where they’re going and can’t react to that. Obviously, the shield is good for that."

He added he would wear the shield in a fight, too.

“Every time I fight and someone has a shield on, I’m at a disadvantage so I guess this evens it up,” he said.

Loose pucks
Weise did a nice job sticking up for teammates late during a melee after a Ben Holmstrom crosscheck to linemate Nick Cousins. “It was a bad crosscheck and you’re defending your teammates,” he said. “The ref was in the way and I kind of went overtop him. That’s what I’m about. Guys take liberties on my linemates, I’ll stand up for them.” … Matt Read had just 6:54 ice time through two periods. Fourth-liner Boyd Gordon had more ice time there — 9:39 — but Read finished with 13:55 to Gordon’s 13:41. More than half of Gordon’s ice time was on the penalty kill. … Goalie Steve Mason faced some point-blank chances among the first 17 shots he faced and finished with 23-save shutout.