Monday, March 26, 2007

The time is now for Roger Goodell to stand up and be counted

As National Football League owners begin a series of important Lord of the Pigskin meetings in Phoenix the most important issue that will be debated among owners will be the implementation of a Code of Conduct for NFL players. Expected to be announced Tuesday, the Code of Conduct will address the deviant behavior a small, but very visible percentage of players that continue to demonstrate away from NFL stadiums. While the problem has always been there for the NFL to deal with, the information age where instant communications reports the transgressions of professional athletes soon after they take place is forcing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to take charge of what has become an embarrassment to Lords of the Pigskin.

It’s hard to pinpoint if one incident has forced the NFL to deal with the off-field antics of their players, but it’s a pretty safe bet Adam "Pacman" Bernard Jones, Terry "Tank" Johnson and the more than 40 NFL players who were arrested during the 2006 NFL season.

Tuesday’s NFL Code of Conduct announcement is the most anticipated news to emerge from this week’s meetings.

"I think the players were very interested, as was the union, in pursuing a modification to our current policy," said Rich McKay, president/general manager of the Atlanta Falcons and co-chair of the NFL's competition committee in an Arizona Republic report.

"We're all concerned with the things that go on off the field and how the actions of a few may affect the many. . . . What it will be, I really don't know. I'm going to be very interested to hear."

The list of transgressions among NFL players is littered with behavior that would be unacceptable in any workplace. Last week in Las Vegas Joey Porter, the newest member of the Miami Dolphins, punched Bengals offensive tackle Levi Jones after the pair began trash-talking each other at a blackjack table in Las Vegas.

"For everybody's benefit, if we are going to stay America's game, we have to do things right," Steelers owner Dan Rooney told The New York Daily News.

It’s becoming more and more apparent; the good apples have had enough of having to deal with the bad apples in the barrel.

"You would think that 48 out of the 53 guys on the rosters are thugs and menaces to society," Pete Kendall, the Jets player rep, said from the NFLPA meetings last week in Hawaii in a New York Daily News report. "That is definitely not the case. There is certainly an abundance of negative press about our players. But our union is not talking about digging our feet in and being obstinate. There is recognition there is a problem."

"We get paid a lot of money," says Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall, one of the 11 players picked by Vincent to take part in meetings last month with Goodell and league officials on the conduct issue. "To preserve that and to preserve the game for future generations, we have to keep our fan appreciation rate up."

At Super Bowl Goodell was asked if there is anything that the league can do to curtail the off-field incidents that have plagued it this year, especially some teams? And I wonder if the league at any point will hold individual clubs accountable for the misbehavior of some of their players?

“Well, we have to do something about it. I think it's an incredibly important issue. One incident is too many, in my book. I think we need to reevaluate all of our programs. We have a tremendous number of programs that I think have been quite successful to help our players. But I think we've got to do more. We are going to start that process, one, by evaluating our policies; but two, Gene and I are going to put together a group of players we're going to meet with in the next several weeks to give us their perspective on what's really happening and what are the issues, so we can try to learn something first.

“But I think our focus has to be on reevaluating our policies, make sure we educate our players to what's out there. We continually tell our players and our coaches that we are raised to a higher standard in the NFL and we have to exceed that standard. I firmly believe that and I think Gene does, also.

“We have to make sure our players are more accountable, but I think also our clubs have to be more accountable and we will be reevaluating our position to see if there are ways we should make our clubs more accountable in the offseason” Goodell said.

Accountably aside – what about the image of the NFL and the terrible toll being done to the decades the NFL has spent crafting that image. At the end of the day, the damage should be of greatest concern to Goodell and company.

“I see it differently. I don't see it in droves. I think there are very few. But a few is too many in my book. I think when you have the outstanding athletes that we have, and we have two of them here today, that won the Walter Payton Award, Drew Brees and LT (LaDainian Tomlinson). These are two of the finest people I know. Not just football players, but outstanding people.

“We're proud of our players. We recognize that at times some of our players don't do what we would hope they do. When that happens we will be very aggressive in dealing with that and we have stepped up our discipline this year, and I intend to continue to do that.”

Unfortunately in an era of instant media visa-vie the Internet, too much attention is spent on the behavior of Pacman Jones, Tank Johnson and far too many NFL’ers than do the good deeds of men like Drew Brees and LaDainian Tomlinson. Is the media at fault for focusing so much coverage on the off-field behavior of NFL players?

“I don't think the media makes enough of the problems. In a normal job you get fired for severe and embarrassing problems. It should not be any different here. Players need to know the standards long in advance and adhere to them or risk losing what they have worked for all their lives. This helps them too. Too little discipline is rarely the answer,” John F. Murray, Ph.D., Licensed Clinical and Sport Performance Psychologist in Palm Beach, Florida offered SBN.

On December 16, the front page of The Washington Post featured a full length expose on crime and National Football League players. According to the report: at least 35 NFL players have been arrested this year on charges ranging from disorderly conduct to felony burglary. If the league wasn’t concerned about the rampant criminal behavior of their athletes, they certainly made it clear to The Washington Post; NFL officials are not pleased with the actions of some of those getting to play on Sunday’s. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell ‘declined’ an opportunity to address the issues raised by The Washington Post, deferring to his public relations staff.

"Most NFL players are good citizens, and some are outstanding citizens," Greg Aiello, the NFL's vice president of public relations, said via e-mail. "It's a small percentage of the 2,000 players in our league that becomes involved in incidents that do not reflect well on the NFL. We have policies and programs to deal aggressively with those issues, and we will continue to do so. The goal is to eliminate all such negative conduct. That may not be realistic, but that is the goal."

"I do not want the fans to turn us off because of off-field behavior," NFLPA head Gene Upshaw said. "It has happened in other sports, and I would not want that to happen to the NFL."

The biggest problem the National Football League continues to face with NFL players running into problems with the police is with the Cincinnati Bengals. Since the start of the Bengals training camp, no less than eight members of the team (several Bengals were released after their transgressions) were arrested for various alleged infractions.

"It's an embarrassment to our organization, to our city, and to our fans," Bengals coach Mavin Lewis said last week during a news conference. "These things socially are not right. Hopefully this is a positive so our young people who are fans understand there are certain things in our society that are unacceptable. It doesn't matter what you do for a living or who you are, you've got to follow those rules and laws. I think we should feel good around here that our local law enforcement has taken steps to curtail and get people who drink and drive off the road."

"We have development programs and training programs," Houston Texans owner Robert McNair said at an NFL owners' meeting ten days ago in the Dallas area. "But, you see, the thing that's difficult is when a person goes from a position of being broke to being . . . affluent, all of a sudden their life changes. And you don't know how that person is going to change once they go through that process. Some of them handle it very well. Some of them have difficulty with it."

For all the good it has done, according to The Washington Post reported NFL franchises conduct background checks on college players before they consider drafting anyone.

"The players come to us from college sometimes with previous problems or a tendency toward problems," Kansas City Chiefs President Carl Peterson said. "You try to make good decisions on players and their off-the-field habits or problems. All of us, I think, want to try to give anyone a second chance if we feel they're deserving. I think all of us also know that if it is a continuing pattern or whatever, you only get so many chances in the NFL. You've got to move on. If you get to the point where . . . it's a habitual thing or a repetitive thing, then you have to make a decision and say, 'Is this really worth it?' "

The San Diego Chargers another team with strong Super Bowl potential has almost rivaled the Bengals in relationship to members of their team running afoul of the legal system. The Chargers have been involved in everything from an alleged money scheme where the players sent large sums of money to China for steroids, safety Terrence Kiel, arrested by Drug Enforcement Administration agents at the team's practice facility in September on charges of transporting and possessing a controlled substance. And linebacker Steve Foley was shot and wounded by an off-duty police officer in an incident in which Foley was charged with drunken driving.

While Foley is sitting out the season, the Chargers at 11-2 have clinched the AFC’s western division title and likely the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC will go through San Diego. For a franchise trying to create good will to leverage taxpayers to fund the building of a new stadium for the team, the franchises first Super Bowl is what management needs. Just how concerned are Chargers management when it comes to deciding between winning on Sunday and dealing with the off-field antics of their players?

"Absolutely it's a reflection of the players [and a] reflection on the organization," Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith said. "I take it personally. . . . Everybody's talking about what's basically a handful [of players]. But if you've got one or a handful, it's still a problem. It's embarrassing and you've got to deal with it."

Chicago Bears Terry "Tank" Johnson the teams’ starting defensive tackle had a bad week even by NFL standards. Thursday, Johnson was arrested at his Chicago home and charged with misdemeanor weapons charges. It was the third time Johnson had been arrested in the last 18 months.

Hours after his arrest Bears general manager Jerry Angelo reportedly warned Johnson he was down to his final chance with the Bears. Early Friday morning Johnson’s bodyguard William Posey was murdered in a Chicago nightclub. Johnson was present at the shooting. Johnson did not play Sunday in the Bears 34-31 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With the win the Bears moved to 12-2 on the season, and clinched home field advantage through the NFC title game. The road to the Super Bowl goes through Chicago for the NFC spot in Super Bowl XLI.

What next for the Bears and Johnson? Literally hours after being told he was down to his last chance to remain a Chicago Bear would general manager Jerry Angelo follow through on his threat to cut the teams ties with their starting defensive tackle, a key member of the Bears defense? Would the Bears really consider jeopardizing their chances to win a Super Bowl because a player had behaved badly?

"We have talked to Tank," Angelo said Friday according to The Chicago Tribune. "We talk to all of our players … and we spend an inordinate amount of time educating our players on all matters outside of football. It is something we did discuss with Tank."

Angelo acknowledged that "each situation is a little bit different and we look at each situation," but he added, "At some point, a player has to be held accountable for his actions."

Johnson is living a scene from the short-lived ESPN series Playmakers. One episode of Playmakers featured the teams’ star rookie running back involved in a shooting with friends he had well before he was a college or NFL star at a nightclub. The fictional character is asked to decide between telling the truth or standing by his ‘boys from the hood’. The player lies to the police believing the bonds he has with his lifelong friends are more important than telling the truth.

"I would never disassociate myself from a friend, good or bad," Bears cornerback Ricky Manning Jr., told The Chicago Tribune who was involved in an incident last April that resulted in felony assault charges against Manning and some friends he might have thought better of hanging out with.

"I just wouldn't turn my back on a friend regardless. But the difference is, if they are any kind of friend, they know what I can and can't do. I'm not going to go around acting crazy for the most part. But I definitely wouldn't disassociate myself from them."

The NFL once advised Bears wide receiver Curtis Conway according to The Chicago Tribune report to not return to the Los Angeles neighborhood he grew up in, reminding him he didn’t grow up in the best part of town.

"These guys are your friends and you try your best to still be cordial and stay away from what they do, but everybody is looking for something," Conway said. "More than anything, that's the pressure. Because a guy is [saying] like, 'Come on over and watch the game, have a bite to eat.' And you're sitting there knowing he might have something on him, but then that's your boy. You've been in that house a thousand times.

"After [many] years, I've thought of so many excuses they kind of realize where I stand. And then at some point you just have to tell them, 'Man, I can't get caught up in what's going on.' Some of them understand, some of them don't."

The great irony in regard to Playmakers, which remains a defining moment in the evolution of ESPN (both positive and negative), was the decision ESPN made to cancel the series after being pressured by the National Football League.

What exactly should we expect from Goodell and the Lords of the Pigskin Tuesday? Not a great deal, but hopefully a step forward.

"He has many priorities, many top priorities, and that's certainly among them," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in advance of the NFL owners meetings this week in Phoenix. "The policy could be in effect immediately when he decides that he's comfortable with it."

“He's looking to develop an overall comprehensive and more efficient program," Aiello said.

According to a report in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Goodell has the ability to fine or suspend players who are convicted of crimes, including instances where a no-contest plea is made. Once a player is charged with a crime, he is required to undergo a consultation and may be required to take part in further counseling.

By all appearances the NFLPA and the Lords of the Pigskin (NFL owners) seem to understand what needs to be done, but understandably have to work within the legal system. The three strike rule may be how criminals are dealt with in California and other states, but Goodell and the NFLPA will have to work through the current NFL collective bargaining agreement to enact a set of rules whereby Goodell will have the ability to suspend football players directly based on their behavior away from a football field. Tuesday, the NFL will take that important first step forward.
For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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