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.

Nola, bench, the kids and more: A half-dozen issues to watch as Phillies get set to play games

Nola, bench, the kids and more: A half-dozen issues to watch as Phillies get set to play games

CLEARWATER, Fla. — For the first time since Oct. 2 when Ryan Howard tipped his cap and Hector Neris retired Kevin Plawecki on a ground ball to third base to give them a 5-2 win over the New York Mets, the Phillies will play a game on Thursday afternoon.

They will host the University of Tampa for the third straight year in an exhibition game at Spectrum Field. The Spartans are 7-2 and ranked No. 2 in NCAA Division II.

Manager Pete Mackanin will take the opportunity to look at a number of minor-league prospects in his starting lineup on Thursday. Minor-league right-hander Mark Leiter Jr. will start for the Phillies.

The Phillies will play a number of their projected regular players in Friday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Yankees in Tampa.

As the games get going, the evaluations and decision-making process ramps up for Mackanin, the coaching staff and the front office.

Let’s take a look at the six biggest storylines that will unfold over the course of the Grapefruit League season:

Aaron Nola
So far, so good for the right-hander who missed the last two months of the 2016 season with an elbow injury. He says he is completely healthy and his early-camp bullpen sessions have gone smoothly.

But game action will bring a rise in intensity and a truer gauge of Nola’s health. He is expected to make his first start sometime next week.

“I'm real anxious to see Nola pitch,” manager Pete Mackanin said Wednesday. “We all know what he's capable of doing when he's healthy. Right now, he appears to be and says he is 100 percent. My only concern for him is as we go along into the season, if it's going to come back to haunt him. Right now, I'm real pleased at the way he's throwing and the way he looks. He feels very confident.”

Nola has no limits, but ...

“We will have to keep a close eye on him,” Mackanin said. “All the pitchers, actually. Especially him. I know how good he can be. I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch. Hopefully, every outing he has, he won't show any signs of it. That's the only thing I'm concerned about, that thing coming back.”

The bullpen
Mackanin opened camp by saying that Jeanmar Gomez was his closer — “at this point.”

Like all pitchers, Gomez will need some time and innings to get into a spring rhythm. Serious evaluation of him probably won’t happen until later in the spring. If he pitches well, he will most likely seize the closer job that he lost last September. If he struggles, he could end up forfeiting the closer gig to Hector Neris or Joaquin Benoit and move into a setup role, where he had success in 2015 and could be an asset because of his ability to pitch multiple innings. For the record, Gomez says he will be happy in whatever role Mackanin asks him to fill.

Other roles are open in the bullpen. In particular, Mackanin is looking for at least one lefty and ideally two. Joely Rodriguez probably has the inside track for one lefty spot because he’s on the 40-man roster. Adam Morgan will get starter’s innings in camp, but he could end up in the bullpen. Veterans Cesar Ramos and Sean Burnett, both in camp on minor-league contracts, will each get a serious look to make the club.

Hitting approach
The Phillies were last in the majors in runs (610) and second-to-last in batting average (.240) and on-base percentage (.301) in 2016.

New hitting coach Matt Stairs is trying to improve the team’s on-base skills by stressing a gap-to-gap approach and not giving away at-bats. In other words, have a plan before the at-bat, key on a particular zone early in the count and don’t expand until there are two strikes.

Turning these hitters into a group that works counts, grinds out at-bats and gets on base won’t happen overnight, but Mackanin would like to see some progress in exhibition play.

“It takes a while for all of it to settle in,” Mackanin said. “When you hit a certain way your whole life or your thought process is a certain way your whole life, it's hard to make changes because you're out of your comfort zone. The important thing is for the players to buy into what Matt Stairs is selling. If they do that, I think we're going to improve.”

The bench
Barring injury, the starting eight position jobs are settled, but there is intrigue on the bench. Outfielder Aaron Altherr and infielder Andres Blanco appear to be locks and it’s difficult to imagine infielder/outfielder Chris Coghlan not making the club. There are others in the mix, including veteran Daniel Nava.

The most intriguing bench question is who will be the backup catcher? Prospect Andrew Knapp will get a long look both behind the plate and at first base as he bids to win a reserve role at both positions. Big-league veterans Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan are also vying for the role of backup catcher.

A roster sleeper?
Last year, little known outfielder Cedric Hunter hit his way onto the opening day roster.

Will there be a repeat this spring?

Keep an eye on Brock Stassi and Andrew Pullin. Both are in camp as non-roster players. Both swing from the left side, have strong minor-league hitting resumes and could be very much in play if the Phils want to add a bat off the bench.

Pullin is a corner outfielder with a short, quick stroke that will remind you of Jim Eisenreich. Stassi has a good bat and could bring some versatility with his ability to play first base and outfield.

The kids
It’s always fun to look at the next wave of potential Phillies early in the Grapefruit League season. Outfielder Roman Quinn was one of the most exciting players in camp last year and he’s primed for another good showing before heading off to Triple A finishing school.

Top prospect J.P. Crawford will get a lot of looks at shortstop before heading to minor-league camp, and it will be fun to watch the power bats of Rhys Hoskins and Dylan Cozens; they combined for 78 homers at Double A last season.

Catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielder Nick Williams, both heading into important seasons at Triple A, will get playing time, commencing with starting assignments on Thursday.

Phillies prospect Victor Arano out at least a month with elbow injury

Phillies prospect Victor Arano out at least a month with elbow injury

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies received some good and bad news on pitcher Victor Arano.

He was diagnosed with a sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

Surgery was not prescribed, which is good news.

The bad news, he’s been shut down for at least a month.

Arano’s injury was treated with a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection.

The 22-year-old from Mexico said he first started feeling some tenderness in the elbow during a stint in the Arizona Fall League. He experienced some swelling in the elbow after reporting to camp earlier this month.

Arano is an intriguing prospect. He was acquired from the Dodgers as part of the package for starter Roberto Hernandez in August 2014. He impressed team officials in spring training 2015 and really took a big step forward after moving to the bullpen last season. He pitched 79⅔ innings in 46 games at Single A Clearwater and Double A Reading and recorded a 2.26 ERA while striking out 95 and walking just 19.

Arano’s stuff has been compared to that of Edubray Ramos, who jumped from Double A to Triple A to the majors last season.

The injury means Arano will have to start the season on the disabled list.

In other health news, pitcher Jake Thompson graduated to a bullpen mound on Wednesday. He had been slowed by a sore wrist but is fine now. Thompson proved that by winning the longest drive at Tuesday’s annual team golf outing.

Thompson lines up to open the season at Triple A.