Watch what you say about the NFL

Topics in this article:

Steven Jackson was watching TV when he got the news about Kellen Winslow’s expensive suspension, a development that sent shivers down the Rams halfback’s spine – all the way to the wallet in his back pocket.

“Boy,” he said to his girlfriend, Supriya Harris, “I might need to start watching what I say.”

As an outspoken NFL star who has been repeatedly cautioned by team officials to avoid controversial public comments, Jackson got the message delivered by Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage loud and clear. By docking Winslow a game check – in the talented tight end’s case $235,294 – for blasting the club’s handling of staph infections, Savage made it clear that anything a player says can and will be used against him at the team’s discretion.

Or, to put it more bluntly: Put a sock in it, or we’ll put a foot where the sun doesn’t shine.

Photo Winslow missed the Week 6 game against the Giants because of the staph infection.
(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

This is just the latest illustration of a disturbing trend, one which includes an inconsistent and overly harsh approach by the NFL office when it comes to fining employees for criticizing officials and an egregious attempt by some teams to muzzle dissenting or unpopular voices.

First it was Terrell Owens, who among other offenses in 2005 made public statements critical of Philadelphia Eagles management and quarterback Donovan McNabb, provoking a disciplinary process that began with a four-game, $764,706 suspension for conduct detrimental to the team.

Last year, after the Atlanta Falcons cut defensive tackle Grady Jackson, then-teammate DeAngelo Hall ripped the organization and coach Bobby Petrino. That cost Hall $50,000 – the portion of an earlier fine for an on-field meltdown that the organization was prepared to forgive if he behaved to their satisfaction.

Now Winslow, pending an appeal by the NFL Players Association that will be heard next Tuesday, is being told to surrender a substantial share of his personal wealth – and we’re all poorer because of it.

Before some of your heads start to explode, let’s address a few of the visceral arguments against this line of thinking.

Yes, I concede that some speech, at least from a league perspective, is damaging enough to justify monetary sanctions. For instance, statements by players, coaches or owners which call into question the intentions of officials – and thus the integrity of the game – are so potentially harmful to the brand that they should be regulated. I do think there needs to be a distinction between someone voicing disagreement with a call (not fine-worthy, in my opinion) and implying that an official is biased against one’s team. Saying an official is incompetent, as Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones essentially did last month of Ed Hochuli (for which he was later fined $25,000 by the league), would fall somewhere in between.

To elaborate on the first point: The NFL recently fined Miami Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter $20,000 for essentially saying a call by referee Hochuli late in Miami’s Oct. 12 defeat at Houston was wrong. “I thought we won the game, actually, but they kept getting calls,” Porter said. In my opinion, that doesn’t constitute an assault on Hochuli’s or the game’s integrity, and Porter should have been spared the fine. Conversely, when Porter, then with Pittsburgh, said after the Steelers’ 2005 divisional playoff victory over the Colts, “I know (the officials) wanted Indy to win this game … I felt they were cheating us,” the league had every right to fine him. Amazingly, after acknowledging that the officials had blown a key call questioned by Porter, the NFL let him off the hook.

Secondly, I’m well aware that, at least in the cases of Owens and Hall, the players in question were guilty of other disruptive actions that factored into their respective employers’ decision to discipline them. I’m not being so cavalier as to suggest that a boss won’t hold critical comments against an employee and that such behavior might push him to trade or release the player in question. What I’m disputing is the notion that “statements which bother me” can be directly equated to “conduct detrimental to the team,” which I believe is the case with Winslow.

Thirdly, I’ve certainly considered the concept that I or anyone else who conspicuously criticizes his or her employer, in any field, could stand to face serious consequences. (That’s why I make a point of ripping my editors privately. Kidding!)

Finally, as a sports journalist who aspires to get the people I interview to speak openly and expansively, I obviously have a degree of self-interest in all of this. At this point, it’s time to clear up what for some of you is a major misconception: You, too, have a measure of self-interest in players speaking the truth.

I know it’s hard to imagine now that the NFL is an exquisitely packaged, made-for-TV monolithic entertainment machine, but this was a league whose popularity was built on the free publicity that media-friendly commissioner Pete Rozelle openly courted. Currently, we live in an era in which societal attitudes about the media have turned largely negative. Yet, more than ever, fans have an almost insatiable appetite for pro football coverage that is enhanced when players are neither muted nor prone to presenting themselves as painfully and intentionally bland.

And while some of you might insist that you’d happily live in a world in which athletes never gave me and my colleagues the time of day, the bottom line is that it’s not for you to decide. A responsibility to talk to the media is in every standard player contract; it’s an obligation that comes with the privilege of playing pro football.

As Jackson says, “You can’t ask us to talk to the media, and ask us to be honest – I mean, you can’t tell us to lie, and when we start spewing all that chalkboard, cliché stuff, you hate it – and then say it’s ‘conduct detrimental’ anytime we say anything the team might not like. It’s really a thin line.”

In Winslow’s case, I don’t believe he crossed that line. The tight end had recently been hospitalized for what he said was his second staph infection since 2005 – and the seventh such infection from which a Browns player had knowingly suffered during that span. One of them, center LeCharles Bentley, described his ailment as “life-threatening”; it was likely career-ending as Bentley has not played a game since suffering the ailment in 2006. Winslow had a right to be scared and frustrated when, following the Browns’ 14-11 defeat to the Redskins Sunday, he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “There’s obviously a problem and we have to fix it. Just look at the history around here.”

Further, Winslow had been the subject of Internet rumors about the source of his undisclosed ailment, and he claimed the Browns had intentionally hid his illness. (Savage later alleged that the team had kept the player’s condition private at Winslow’s insistence.) Winslow said he felt as though he’d been treated like a “piece of meat” and that he was upset Savage hadn’t contacted him during his three-night hospital stay.

Raise your hand if you think Savage’s strong reaction to Winslow’s comments has something to do with the fact that he was called out by name. OK, you can put it down now. Throw in the fact that the two men reportedly had a somewhat heated conversation in a hallway outside the visitors’ locker room at FedEx Field just before Winslow made his comments, and this seems more like “conduct detrimental to Phil Savage” than to the Browns’ organization.

To former Giants halfback Tiki Barber, now an NBC analyst, Winslow’s behavior was understandable.

“I know that coaches and organizations would rather have things handled in-house,” Barber says. “Here’s the problem: If you try to handle it in-house and nothing changes, you almost have no choice but to bring public attention to it. If someone like Kellen Winslow thinks a situation is detrimental (to) him – as a person, not just as a player – he has no choice but to speak up. That’s what this country is founded on: The right to speak your mind, and the notion that public accountability is an essential part of the process.”

As a player, Barber occasionally gave blunt and revealing interviews that riled his employers, but in those cases he made a point of sticking to his convictions. “If you are going to speak your mind, you have to accept that there’s going to be a backlash,” he says. “But you have to be principled enough not to back away from what you say – to know that you are speaking the truth, and that in the end it doesn’t matter what you say, it’s how you play.”

Photo Hall, left, and Petrino didn’t see eye-to-eye with the Falcons last year.
(AP Photo/John Bazemore)

It certainly helped that Barber, who emerged as one of the league’s top backs in the latter part of his career, had the status both as a performer and as a hard-worker to cushion the fallout. Had he been a less integral part of the team, his bosses might have decided his principled outspokenness wasn’t worth the trouble.

Guys like Jeremy Shockey, Pete Kendall and even pre-Patriots Randy Moss weren’t so well-positioned.

And you wonder why NFL writers sometimes rely on anonymous locker-room sources.

On the other hand, recent retirees such as Barber, Michael Strahan, Trent Dilfer, Warren Sapp and Keyshawn Johnson had a vested interest in speaking their minds: In essence, they were auditioning for second careers as TV analysts, and the network executives who control those jobs typically aren’t looking for ex-players who were boring or unrevealing in interviews.

A less cynical way of looking at it: The same drive and intensity that helped turn these men into elite competitors sometimes compels them to ignore discretion and simply tell it like it is. To a proud player, this can be a means of clearing up what he perceives to be the misconceptions of outsiders.

Given the fame and relative fortune enjoyed by many NFL players, albeit with a short career-expectancy, I don’t expect many of you to sympathize with the Winslows of the world. When I reminded Barber, as many of you surely will remind me, that most employees in other endeavors who were openly critical of workplace conditions would risk the wrath of their bosses, he responded, “First of all, most people don’t have to face the media on a regular basis. They don’t have people publicly questioning why you’re not performing every day or whether you’re doing your job well enough. Most people aren’t forced to be publicly accountable in their jobs. They can (expletive) up and find a hole to hide in. Everything a pro football player does is scrutinized. That’s the difference.”

Another distinction Barber makes: “Look, I realize there’s a tendency to think that sports are trivial. But Kellen Winslow’s not just complaining about football. This is his livelihood. If he thinks working conditions (are unsafe), of course he’s stressed.”

I’m glad that the NFLPA, which too often as of late has been tepid in defending the rights of its members, seems to be solidly in Winslow’s corner. I hope that the union convinces an arbitrator to award him most or all of the game check the Browns rescinded and that such an outcome reminds players around the league that reasonably free speech still exists in the NFL.

In the meantime, if I decide to write a story on the Rams’ resurgence and Jackson tells me that he’s “playing within myself and taking things one game at a time,” you can thank Phil Savage.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

Ben Roethlisberger has been the NFL’s toughest quarterback in 2008, but I see the Giants pass rush wearing him down as the defending champs pull of the victory at Heinz Field. … Philip Rivers has developed into an excellent quarterback, but Chargers fans will be confronted with their past on Sunday as Drew Brees leads the Saints over San Diego in London. … The erratic Eagles will be the baaaaaad birds in a lopsided victory over the Falcons.

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

London, where everything is lovely jubbly … wait, that was last year. It was tempting to check out the Chargers and Saints at Wembley, but those of you who’ve followed my career for a long time know where I left my heart.

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. The trendy Kansas City clothing store, N Valentino, is now offering a sleek, black, waterproof club dress known as “The Johnson.”

2. In the wake of injuries to defensive starters Champ and Boss Bailey, Broncos coach Mike Shanahan offered a contract to their little brother, nose tackle Joe The Plugger Bailey.

3. After new Oakland coach Tom Cable commendably blamed the Raiders’ penalty problems on the Raiders – rather than on a leaguewide conspiracy against the franchise – owner Al Davis sent him a letter warning that, “If you repeat this disrespectful behavior toward our fine organization, you will be fired for cause.”

WORLD’S SIMPLEST POOL

The Steelers’ 38-10 victory over the Bengals allowed Phoenix Suns general manager Steve Kerr to continue for a second week (and enabled him to continue in his glorious capacity as a part-time celebrity prognosticator, but that wasn’t his only moment of glory from last weekend. Kerr’s alma mater, Arizona, defeated my alma mater in football, prompting me to utter a phrase my old high school writing partner never thought he’d hear from me: Wait ‘till basketball season. That’s what happens when one school hires an awesome coach and the other loses its legend. For that reason – and because, as Kerr points out, “we’re one of only three BCS schools (Baylor and Duke being the others) that haven’t been to a bowl game in 10 years” – he refrained from taunting me the way my buddies Dan and Greg and I once taunted Lute during his visits to the East Bay. (Five words: It’s all about you, Lute.) Anyway, back to our regularly scheduled pool. “I’ll go with the Jets, but not with a ton of confidence,” Kerr says. “This is a tough week of games to pick, but NY needs the win badly and the Chiefs are again without Larry Johnson. Come on, Brett!”

MY BUDDY’S ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE

After pulling out a 10-point victory over Brooklyn’s Finest to improve her fantasy team, Gaucho Madness, to 4-3 on the season, reckoning day has come for UC Santa Barbara women’s basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb. She now faces Gotham City, the team managed by her former Cal coaching colleague and esteemed fantasy shark Charmin Smith, who boasts a 7-0 record and some serious smack-talk behind it. “Oh how those bye weeks can be a killer,” Smith posted on the Yahoo-run league’s matchup page, noting that each of Gottlieb’s quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers, Gus Frerotte) is off this week. “Shoulda made me an offer for (Trent) Edwards or (Jeff) Garcia … I bet they are looking pretty good right now.”

Gottlieb scoured the waiver wire and came up with two alternatives: Kerry Collins and J.T. O’Sullivan. I recommended Collins, on my hunch that he will have a monster Monday night against Peyton Manning and the Colts, but Gottlieb saw it differently. Noting that Smith, a former Stanford star who was a member of Tara Vanderveer’s Cardinal coaching staff until coming to Cal for the ’07-08 season, “is really a part of the Evil Empire, I’m going to hit her with some UC karma. J.T. went to UC Davis, and I think he’ll come up big against the Seahawks in Mike Singletary’s first game, with Mike Holmgren on the opposite sideline. I’m feeling the upset.” Other moves included Texans kicker Kris Brown (vs. Bengals) for the Vikings’ Ryan Longwell (bye); and Jets wideout Chansi Stuckey (vs. Chiefs) for Browns receiver Donte’ Stallworth (at Jaguars). Smith’s projected starters include Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Santana Moss, Marion Barber, LenDale White and Steve Slaton. “The Cardinals have to play at Carolina,” Gottlieb said. “I like my chances, especially if Willie Parker comes back.”

As for my buddy Malibu, when Drew Brees and LaDainian Tomlinson score fewer points combined than Dan Orlovsky, you are in for a long day. Hand of Doom fell to 4-3 after a 49-point drubbing by Man Up Willis U (Expletive), the struggling team run by Malibu’s son, A-Man, as Willis McGahee obeyed by coming up big (along with Jeff Garcia, Brandon Jacobs and Lee Evans). This weekend Malibu won’t be in London to see his beloved Chargers face the Saints, but he might as well be: His team includes eight players (Brees, Tomlinson, Marques Colston, Deuce McAllister, Malcom Floyd, Chris Chambers, Antonio Gates and Nate Kaeding) who could potentially play at Wembley, and he picked up San Diego’s defense for good measure, against my strong objections. “I know Bills against the Dolphins is a better play,” he said. “And I know I have three Saints, and they’ve got a great offense. But (Antonio) Cromartie could take one to the house, and besides, it’s the Chargers, dude. It’s not rational.” Malibu hopes that Hand of Doom, which faces Team 420 (Peyton Manning, Ryan Grant, Sammy Morris, Hines Ward, Devery Henderson, Brad Johnson), gets a boost from newly acquired wideout Steve Breaston.

OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE

In one of the strangest medical discoveries in history, doctors seem to have found that keeping beat to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” is a potential lifesaver. Disco, however, still sucks.

LET’S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

Tom Brady, who reportedly has had three cleanout surgeries as he copes with an infection in his left knee. Before we think about the ramifications on his football career, let’s send our thoughts and prayers and look forward to the day when he is infection-free.

THIS WEEK’S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

The Golden Bears’ amazing amazons achieved another milestone last Sunday, literally rising up to secure a four-set volleyball victory over rival Stanford and improve its Pac-10-leading record to 7-0. No. 4 Cal (17-1 overall) hadn’t won at Stanford in nearly 29 years and managed to defeat the Cardinal despite injuries to key players Morgan Beck and Kat Reilly. Freshmen Tarah Murrey and Shannon Hawari were among the stars of Sunday’s match, which featured epic efforts by sophomore setter Carli Lloyd (55 assists, 12 digs) and junior outside hitter Hana Cutura (match-high 23 kills).

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

Batman and Robin episode 2 penguin attacks

ROLLIN’ WITH THE ROYALS

It has now been a year since I took the train ride that led me to pledge allegiance to the Reading Football Club – back when they were playing in the Premier League – and had I returned to London for the Chargers-Saints game, I’d surely have partied it up at Madejski Stadium this Saturday to watch the Royals face the Queens Park Rangers. After a disappointing 2-1 defeat last Saturday at Preston, which rallied after Stephen Hunt’s penalty kick in the 27th minute had given Reading a 1-0 lead, the Royals extended English soccer’s only undefeated home campaign with a 2-1 triumph over Doncaster Rovers. An early Andre Bikey header off of Hunt’s free kick stood up until the 74th minute, when Rovers’ Jos Van Nieuwstadt took advantage of some lax defense to equalize on a header. Two minutes later substitute James Harper’s well-directed free kick was met in the air by Kevin Doyle, who cracked a header into the far right corner for the game-winner. With 23 points after 12 games, Reading remains third in the Football League Championship table with 23 points, four behind first-place Birmingham City.

TRIPPIN’ ON E(MAIL)

After last week’s husband-and-wife variety show on Live Trippin’, I’ll be handling things solo again this coming Tuesday at the usual time: 1 p.m. ET, for a generous hour.

Your column was confusing. This was the first time I read a column from Yahoo. Why was the punter truley let go, or do you even know.”

Chamux
Texas

Hello, and welcome to Trippin’. It is truly an honor to have you here. Lesson No. 1: When posing a query (as I do 32 times each Tuesday), it’s a good idea to end the sentence with a question mark. Are we clear? Oh, and Steve Weatherford was released because, you know, he wasn’t punting the ball well enough. Thank you.


“Thanks for the nice column on our Titans. It’s beginning to feel a lot like 1999 around Nashville! If you’re in town Monday I’ll treat! P.S. I don’t care if she was still only 86, I doubt (Rich’s) grandmother could have got more that 60 yards yesterday. The Pack’s ‘D’ looked pretty darn tough!

Jack Spann
Nashville

Alas, I won’t be in Nashvegas on Monday. I think it’s going to be a very good night for the locals, though, especially Mr. Collins.


“Mr. Silver, please stop jinxing my Boys! Quit picking them to lose to teams they should not lose to. I am personally holding you responsible should they lose to the Rams … and you won’t like me when I am angry! I am a redhead, mean, and love my Boys!! Comprende? :)”

Angela
Savannah, Ga.

Quick, somebody sound the fire alarm.


“Mike! How is it that your pick record when disagreeing with everyone else (11-6) is better than your overall win percentage? Are you really that confrontational? The last two weeks, I’ve looked to see where you disagree and made those choices in my picks league – I’m making a comeback thanks to you!”

Shea
North Carolina

Hmmm. I was not aware of that. Thanks for breaking it down. As for your question: Perhaps it’s a Berkeley thing.


“michael, in regards to the ‘mike alsott’ reference in your fantastic 32 questions article, i think its important to note that the bucs were giving mike a plack with the first and last jersey he wore for the bucs. the jersey he wore for the first game on the team had his name spelled wrong. mr. glazer made mention to that in his speach.”

Garett
Ontario, Canada

I now realize my mistake (since corrected), thanks to you and scores of other alert readers – some of whom, shockingly, were far less polite. But after reading your email, I have to ask: Were you an equipment manager for the Buccaneers in 1996?


“Just wanted to tell you as a former player under Petrino during one of his many college stops, the comments about him were right on. The comment about the hello in the hallway was hilarious because it happened to me too – at first I thought I just caught him on a bad day, but I eventually learned to stop trying. Never could figure out what the malfunction was.”

Steve

You were feeling a bit like Kent Dorfman in the opening scene of “Animal House,” weren’t you?


“Sir; For some 40 or so years now I have fantasized about Glinda minus the pink dress. Now you’re telling me she looks like Mike Smith? I hope you can sleep at night after destroying a man’s dreams.”

Tom Oatway
Newport, R.I.

It sounds like you may be the one who has some trouble sleeping. Good luck with that.


“I have been a true Atlanta Falcons fan since 1980. Regarding the nightmare that was last season it is a joy to see the players having fun and winning. Petrino was the equivalent of a pet rock posing as a pro football coach. A total disaster and yes Mr. Blank should offer DeAngelo his money back and a public apology. By the way, I think the pet rock was more successful than Petrino.”

Johnny Tardibuono
Bunyola, Spain

This just in: The pet rock has threatened to sue for defamation. (Or perhaps he’s just a conspiracy theorist like his cousin, Oliver Stone.)

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

It’s tough being Brett Favre. As a gabby 18th-year veteran with loads of friends around the league, Favre spends more time on the phone than a high school homecoming queen. Over the last few months, Favre’s hookups with Vikings coach Brad Childress, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and, most recently, former Lions president Matt Millen have been the subject of serious public scrutiny. Subsequently, Favre spent nearly an entire session with the media Wednesday discussing his prodigious addressing book. To him, it’s all kind of Ludacris, which explains this remix of “Area Codes” that I’ll soon be installing as my ringtone. (And yes, that’s Brett’s new BFF, Laveranues Coles, doing the Nate Dogg hooks.)

I’ve got bros (I’ve got bros)
In different area codes (area) area code (codes)
Bros (bros)
In different area codes (area) area codes (codes)

Now you thought I was your 920
and 414
I’m worldwide, snitch, act like y’all don’t know
it’s the abominable Bro man
Make calls while droppin’ back to throw, man
Glazer don’t know man
813s, 312s
I be callin’ Sean P. while I’m textin’ Drew
504, matter fact 305
Every time that we score, got Parcells in my five
So control your hormones and keep your drawers on
When I call Romo and we talk broken bones
262, 214, 972, 404
Well I’m a bro-fessional who burns like bro-mide
Obama called? You know that he tried
202, 310, my cell phone just overloads

I’ve got bros (I’ve got bros)
In different area codes (area) area code (codes)
Bros (bros)
In different area codes (area) area codes (codes)

Now everyday is a hunting day
So when Matt Millen calls y’all know that I’m in play
What you think I’m gonna say?
610, 212
313, what’cha gon’ do?
Hit 22 straight throws, I’m gonna tell my bro why
While texting Darrell Bevel givin’ him the inside
612, 201
too much green, too much fun
Well I knew York ‘fore New York
Doc John, got Nolan with the pitchfork
Bob Bork, think you’re the judge? Well I won’t budge
Free in Jersey
Callin’ up Chilly, with Mangini
Man even when I’m chillin’ under the pile
I still whip out the (expletive) phone and dial
And when Aaron Rodgers gets his ass sacked
If he wants advice I won’t call back, Jack

Is it ‘cuz they all up on my jock?
Is it ‘cuz they like to make me talk?
Is it ‘cuz they like my grey stubble?
Is it ‘cuz they want me in trouble?
Whatever it is, I love it
and they just won’t let me be
I handle my biz, don’t hush me
just relax and let me decree
whenever I call somebody
860 or 203
that’s ESPN y’all, stop frontin’
‘for I call Mort and speak free

I’ve got bros (I’ve got bros)
In different area codes (area) area code (codes)
Bros (bros)
In different area codes (area) area codes (codes)

916, 415, 704
Shout out to Steve Smith once more
Everybody in the 808
516, 702, 314
317, sayin’ yo to Peyton
907, what up Todd Palin?
248, 510, 213,
904, David G. talk to me
914, 973, 530
Ain’t callin’ him no mo’
Bros in different area codes, know that …
Southern bro-munication, Northern Exposure