Now that the NFL has suspended Terrelle Pryor for the first five games of his NFL career as a precondition for allowing him into Monday's supplemental draft, I hope commissioner Roger Goodell is prepared to whip out his cattle prod and mete on an even harsher punishment to the next non-athlete who flees to the league amid the backdrop of NCAA punishment.
You know, like Pryor's former Ohio State coach, Jim Tressel – the man who essentially blackmailed Pryor into accepting the NCAA-mandated five-game suspension that the talented quarterback agreed to serve as a pro.
If and when Tressel, whose lying and cheating ultimately led to his resignation last May, tries to slide into the NFL in any capacity – coach, personnel executive, assistant to the regional manager – I expect to see Goodell announce a (minimum) one-year unpaid suspension for making "decisions that undermine the integrity of the eligibility rules for the NFL draft." That's the rationale, under the broader authority of Article 8.6 of the NFL Constitution and Bylaws, which the league gave for giving Pryor the spanking that the NCAA wanted to but couldn't.
The same Draconian logic should apply in Tressel's case, and in those of so many other collegiate coaches, and I fully expect Goodell to make the connection and to avoid being called a hypocrite by punishing them for their transgressions upon their acceptance of NFL employment contracts.
As we learned in the curious case of former Oakland Raiders coach Tom Cable and the "accidental bumping" of then-defensive assistant Randy Hanson, Goodell seems to apply wildly different standards when it comes to disciplining players as he does punishing coaches and other team employees.
In the former case, he's The Sheriff. In the latter, he's Sgt. Schultz.
And that, to the many NFL players who criticized the commissioner publicly and privately during the recently concluded lockout, undoubtedly is one of the many troubling elements of Pryor's suspension. Another is the implied precedent that an athlete's behavior which precedes (and has nothing to do with) his future contractual obligations to an employer is now subject to review by an authority with the power to delay or eliminate his ability to ply his trade professionally.
[Related: Is there value in drafting Terrelle Pryor? ]
Thirdly, and not insignificantly, it underscores the NFL's allegiance to the free farm system that, as we've been so blatantly reminded this week by my Yahoo! Sports colleague Charles Robinson's chilling report on the University of Miami football program, is a wasteland of duplicity and corruption. Who, in fact, is most harmed by the flawed NCAA landscape is a whole other argument, but the bottom line is that many athletes rightfully feel exploited while coaches tend to cash in, feign moral sanctity and bolt to greener (on more than one level) pastures when confronted with the threat of accountability.
"The guys in the locker room are pissed, and I completely understand why," Cleveland Browns linebacker and NFLPA executive committee member Scott Fujita(notes) told me Thursday. "The commissioner opened Pandora's Box, and the question now is, 'How far is this going to go?' "
Though NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith declined comment Thursday, several union sources insisted that Pryor's case was an isolated incident that should not be viewed as having set any sort of precedent.
Facing exclusion from the supplemental draft – and the likelihood that an NFLPA appeal and/or legal action would not be decided in time to allow him to play in the league this year – Pryor, through agent Drew Rosenhaus, sought a compromise that would allow him to be drafted and experience at least part of a preseason with his new team. Rosenhaus, sources say, worked out the terms of the suspension with the league and told Smith that Pryor's camp was happy with the resolution, which will allow the quarterback to practice, attend meetings and play in games during the preseason. The union elected not to wage an appeal on behalf of a player who was reluctant to fight the punishment.
I wish the NFLPA would have dug in on this issue for several reasons, one of them being to avoid the perception of precedent, and another as a general objection to the shadiness surrounding the end of Pryor's collegiate career.
Pryor was one of five Ohio State juniors facing NCAA suspensions last winter yet, as part of a compromise engineered by Tressel, were allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl. To be afforded that opportunity, Pryor and his teammates were bullied into making a "pledge" to Tressel that they would return for their senior seasons, rather than enter the 2011 NFL draft.
Had Pryor simply declared for the draft – and, had Tressel's resignation come a few months earlier, it likely would have been another factor prompting the quarterback to leave Columbus – he'd have been afforded the same opportunities to succeed in the pros as any other player, some of whom had NCAA transgressions on their résumés.
Instead, he waited, the deadline passed, and he was eventually ruled ineligible for his entire senior season. At that point he was staring at an unenviable near future in which he'd have to wait until next April to launch his professional career, unless he could persuade the NFL to allow him into the supplemental draft.
I still think Pryor has a case that his NFL suspension is a sham, and I wonder what would happen if, after getting drafted Monday, he were to do the following: announce that he was switching agents, declare that the deal Rosenhaus crafted is unsatisfactory and immediately launch an appeal – and/or a lawsuit.
It would never happen, but it'd be a very interesting showdown, and I think the NFLPA would have little choice but to back him.
The union, of course, could have tried to keep Pryor from agreeing to the deal in the first place, or it could have launched an appeal on his behalf without his blessing.
My sense is that Smith, having recently wrapped up the union's most daunting negotiation in nearly two decades, chose not to go to the mat on this issue because he's looking down the road at a much larger fight.
By essentially accepting Pryor's suspension, Smith is daring Goodell to apply the same standard to non-players who land NFL jobs after having run afoul of the NCAA. If and when Goodell fails to do so (and I'm not holding my breath that he will), I believe Smith would make some noise, and he'd occupy the moral high ground in the process.
That, of course, is not the endgame for the NFLPA. I believe the union is thinking about this issue on a much larger level and considering its options toward reforming a corrupt system that leaves many of its future members in a defenseless and subservient situation.
Could college athletes ultimately unionize to protect their rights, either with the NFLPA's implicit support, or perhaps under its umbrella as part of a labor partnership?
It's a tricky proposition, but I definitely wouldn't rule it out.
In the meantime, NFL players have a right to be angry about Pryor's suspension. They can't help but compare the situation to that of, say, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who left USC one step ahead of the NCAA's slow-footed enforcement arm, boarded Paul Allen's private jet and made a soft, $33-million landing in Seattle.
Carroll's circumstances aren't directly analogous to Pryor's, because USC hadn't yet been punished, but Tressel's are, and I expect there will be plenty of others in the coming years. And for current NFL players, whose union representatives are still battling Goodell on the question of whether those who violated the league's personal-conduct policy during the lockout can face punishment from the commissioner, this is yet another indication that the league often tries to flex its power like someone who has ingested generous portions of HGH (which, incidentally, happens to be the subject of the next league-union fight, and one that could get messy).
As Fujita said Thursday, "I was hoping that with the new CBA we were past this [expletive], but apparently we're not."
If he's lucky, his current employer will try to bring Tressel down the freeway to Cleveland for the 2011 season – and we can all sit back and watch the hypocrisy.
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- Terrelle Pryor
- Jim Tressel
- Roger Goodell