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.

Pete Mackanin says Odubel Herrera will stay in CF this season — but beyond?

Pete Mackanin says Odubel Herrera will stay in CF this season — but beyond?

A couple of weeks ago in Los Angeles, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said there was a chance he could look at Odubel Herrera in a corner outfield spot over the final weeks of the season.

Scrub that idea.

“Not this year,” Mackanin said Monday. “If we decide we're going to do that, we'll encourage him to play a corner in winter ball and then in spring training, if that's what we decide to do.

“I thought about doing that. But I don't know if we want to do that now. We’ll just let him get back on track offensively. I won't say it won't happen here or there. But we're not going to make that move right now.

“Let's try to keep his mind as uncluttered as possible right now. It looks a little cluttered.”

The Phillies have thought about moving Herrera to a corner spot because they have a top center field prospect in Roman Quinn. Also, Aaron Altherr is an excellent defender in center.

Quinn seemed to be on target for a call up after the Eastern League playoffs, but that could be in doubt now that he’s on the disabled list with a concussion.

Still, Quinn may be this club’s centerfielder of the future. And behind him is Mickey Moniak, this year’s top draft pick. He’s a ways away. But it’s worth wondering if the Phillies believe Herrera’s future is at a corner outfield spot. Or whether Herrera will be wintertime trade bait.

Mackanin was asked if he believed Herrera’s future would be in a corner spot.

“You know, I'd rather not really even comment on that,” he said. “I don't want him to think that we're not pleased with him. I just want to keep him confident the rest of the season.”

Herrera’s defense in center field has slipped this season.

“He was better last year defensively,” Mackanin said. “He's made a lot of mistakes this year. I think we've all seen that. But that doesn't mean he's not going to play center field anymore. There's another month left to see what happens.”

Herrera was the Phillies’ lone representative in the All-Star Game. He hit .294 with a .378 on-base percentage and a .427 slugging percentage before the All-Star break. Since then, however, he was hitting .252 with a .314 on-base percentage and a .378 slugging percentage entering play Monday night.

Mychal Kendricks may be only starter to play Thursday vs. Jets

Mychal Kendricks may be only starter to play Thursday vs. Jets

Nelson Agholor, a struggling second-year receiver who may or may not be a starter, likely won't play in the Eagles' preseason finale Thursday against the Jets.

Mychal Kendricks, a fifth-year linebacker who's been a regular starter since he was a rookie, likely will.

"There's a chance," head coach Doug Pederson said Monday. "There's a chance he plays because he hasn't played all preseason, and we still want to get him those live reps and get him ready for Cleveland."

Kendricks played Saturday against Indianapolis after missing the first two preseason games with a hamstring injury suffered in training camp earlier this month. He was still in the game in the fourth quarter, when the rest of the starters had exchanged their helmets for baseball caps.

"Why? Because he hasn't played," Pederson said. "He hasn't played and we just want to see him get game and live reps. That's the bottom line."

And just to be sure, Kendricks is still a starter?

"Oh, yeah. He's another one that we'd love to see again this Thursday night in a short role," Pederson said. "But at the same time he hasn't played all preseason. Stephen Tulloch's another one that we need to see play. So there's an opportunity for these two to get some more reps on Thursday."

Tulloch makes sense. He needs all the reps he can get. And he's also a backup. He should have no problem playing Thursday.

As for Kendricks ... he was not available to the media Monday.

Aaron Grymes waived by Eagles

Aaron Grymes waived by Eagles

Aaron Grymes was making a serious push to be on the Eagles' 53-man roster until the cornerback's right shoulder slammed into the ground at Heinz Field after an interception.

Grymes hasn't practiced or played since and the Eagles waived the 25-year-old corner on Monday with an injury settlement.

Before coming to the Eagles this spring, Grymes spent three successful seasons in the Canadian Football League and won a Grey Cup as an All-Star for the Edmonton Eskimos in 2015.

There seems to be a decent shot that the Eagles might want to put Grymes on their practice squad.

After the Pittsburgh game, when he had the interception and suffered the injury, Grymes was asked if he would prefer to be on a practice squad or head back to Canada, where he's already a proven star.

“I’ve thought about both of them," Grymes said on Aug. 18. "Both of them are great opportunities. I know that there are teams in Canada that are willing to bring me in and let me play. But then again, you can’t really compare it with this NFL dream I’ve had forever.

"To sign to a practice squad … injuries happen every day, and I think an opportunity could be there. It will be something I sit down with my wife and talk about, sit down with my agent and talk about. We’ll just make the best decision for us from there.”