The recent comments made about NFL commissioner by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison brought one issue into sharp focus: When the NFLPA re-certifies, a new CBA is put in place, and football resumes, will players be held responsible by the league for words and actions said and done during a work stoppage in which the league was not paying its players and not providing benefits? Many believe that when the roster of the multi-arrest Tampa Bay Buccaneers, or Tennessee Titans receiver Kenny Britt (who seems incapable of staying out of one kind of trouble or another, as you can see below from his recent fun time at a Britney Spears show), come back to the league, all applicable punishments should be proffered, including fines and suspensions.
There are a few problems with that theory. When the league locked the players out in March of 2011, all player benefits lapsed — not just medical insurance and care, but little things like drug rehab and personal counseling. And while we're not saying that people should be in possession of Dr. Drew's cell number just to keep them from screwing up, it's also true that the NFL abandoned its responsibilities to all players under the work stoppage, and some of those players were locked out with confusing personal situations and limited (at best) supervision and mentorship. Not an excuse when you're a 30-year-old multimillionaire with a wife and three kids. But when you're a 22-year-old kid fresh out of a rookie season, with too much time on your hands, things tend to get weird if your head isn't on straight.
This is in no way excusing the actions of those players who did get into trouble in this unusual offseason, but it does beg the question: When an employer abandons all responsibility to its employees for any reason, how much can that employer hold its employees responsible for words and actions during that time of abandonment? If there's no pay and no benefits, how can there be retroactive jurisdiction? That's something the two sides will have to negotiate as the labor talks (hopefully) wrap up this week, but I'd encourage the NFL to think of those players as new employees, and their infractions as those committed in college — you weren't paying, playing or helping those kids in any way, shape or form, so where do you get off applying discipline after the fact?
The question, as asked on Tuesday morning's Mike and Mike show, also allowed Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White to opine on the problems with the personnel conduct policy in general. It's important to note that White has been a model citizen during his NFL career, the closest he's come to the law was when his cousin was arrested in a home invasion and White went off on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for tying the story back to him.
"He's not a guy who gets acclimated with the players and things like that, which is what you need to do as a commissioner," White told Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic. "Just talk to the players a little bit more and I think people [will be able to] see eye-to-eye with him. He doesn't interact with us, so we try and stay as far away from him as possible. Some guys just don't agree with the book. A lot of times, we have to … the [punishments] should be standard. Like, if you get a DUI, it's a two-game suspension. Not, 'Oh, I'm gonna think about it,' and it's a four-game suspension. I think it should be a book of rules that everybody sees, and you get whatever you get — that's whatever the games [lost] are."
Greenberg asked if some of the negative feelings about Goodell come from the personal conduct policy: "Yeah, because it's always like he wears his feelings on his shoulders. It's how he feels about the situation, and how you're getting penalized for it. That's how a lot of players feel about him. They think it's not fair. And plus, it's like a dictatorship. Whatever he says, that's just the end of it — there's nobody else you can talk to. A lot of players feel that there should be another way. [NFLPA head] De Smith should have something to say within that penalty. Especially with the fines that James Harrison got — he can appeal them all he wants, but there's nothing anyone else can say, and it is what it is."
We can only hope that after the CBA is dealt with, and Goodell's legacy is refined following several missteps during the process, there will be an environment in which Goodell feels compelled to deal with the players as partners instead of subordinates, and the disconnects that lead to anger among the players can be put to rest. Harrison went way over the line with his comments, but those comments have valid points behind them, and they didn't come from nowhere.