A sea of change in the NFL’s attitude toward off-the-field behavior occurred with the succession from Paul Tagliabue to Roger Goodell as commissioner. With the now-awkward phrase of ‘‘a new sheriff in town’’ being trumpeted at the time, the Personal Conduct Policy received universal praise for its get-tough policy toward NFL bad boys.
Now two years into the policy, the question has to be asked: “Is it working?” The policy has noble objectives in attempting to curtail behavior that brings ill repute and shakes public confidence in the league, its teams and its players. The league wants to send a message to all players that unsavory conduct will be met with discipline, no matter the excuses and legal defenses involved. And the league wants a deterrent effect to other players regarding behavior that will not be tolerated.
Under Tagliabue, who is an attorney, discipline was held until the player’s legal status wended its way through the system, where it would result in a conviction, plea, acquittal, diversionary program, etc. Players knew they would not be subject to suspension as long as they had not received due process from the legal system.
No longer. Now the facts of a player conduct issue, gleaned from police reports and accounts from witnesses and the player himself, is enough for Commissioner Goodell to impose discipline. At the Packers, we experienced the first example of this when Koren Robinson was suspended from the NFL for one year based on police report information about his use of alcohol. Although Koren had a defense to the DUI on which he was charged – a DUI that was later thrown out – the information from the police report was enough for a year-long suspension from then-new Commissioner Goodell.
Players are now routinely disciplined according to the Personal Conduct Policy without regard for where their case is in the legal process. Plaxico Burress will be the next to have such punishment while his case is pending.
Speaking of Burress, he has become, along with Pacman Jones, the poster child for the policy. Due to the high-profile nature of Burress and the team he plays for – the league’s best team in the country’s biggest market – there is considerably more attention on this latest off-field incident than there is on the Giants’ impressive on-field performance on Sunday (other than they played well in spite of the distraction). It has become a rare week this season when we are not seeing national headlines not involving Burress or Jones.
Which, of course, brings us back to the question of whether the policy is working or not. The goals of the policy – to restore the integrity of the league and its players, to foster a player product that conducts itself with professionalism and respect for the NFL shield off the field – are admirable, but they do not appear to be working due to the inability of players to curb this behavior. With high-profile players being the biggest repeat offenders of the policy – Burress, Jones, Michael Vick, Larry Johnson, etc. – combined with 24-hour coverage of the nation’s most popular sports league, the aim of the Personal Conduct Policy is being subverted by the actions of a few and the coverage of these incidents.
Perhaps more important, the NFLPA will eventually have its say about the policy. When it was implemented in 2006, then-executive director Gene Upshaw went along with it as a gesture of mutual interest in cleaning up the image of the players. Now, as one union official told me, Upshaw would have some real problems with it if he were alive today. Union leaders feel that discipline is getting to be out of control, and this issue cries out for addressing in the upcoming collective bargaining negotiations.
Thus, the policy continues with the wrong kind of attention focused on it. Good intentions have become mired in sensationalistic, police-blotter headlines about incorrigible players like Burress and Jones, giving the wrong kind of attention to a policy that seemed to have so much promise.