When Roger Goodell and several NFL owners were asked Wednesday how long a revamping of the NFL's personal conduct policy would take, they preached patience.
Three men who have led the players' union must have been nodding their heads in agreement.
Current NFLPA leader Eric Winston and past presidents Kevin Mawae and Domonique Foxworth say that has always been the union's approach since DeMaurice Smith became executive director in 2009. They believe it's the only way to do business.
"Issues are seldom black and white, which is why the long process needs to be in place, whether it's a drug policy or bounties or whatever it might be," says Winston, who took over as union president this year after eight NFL seasons. "It goes to the approach of educating our players; sometimes from outside these look like quick fixes and they are not. It requires a lot of thinking and education and time."
The union, of course, has a deep interest in any alterations to the league's conduct policy because those changes would affect all 1,800 active members.
All three men suggest the best way to a new and more effective personal conduct policy — and how discipline is handled — is through negotiations. And yes, if those negotiations take a while, that's just fine.
"When it comes to this key issue in the NFL, the only way to get an effectively bargained situation done or pass a personal conduct policy for everyone is out of collective bargaining with those who have the power to make decisions," says Mawae, a former All-Pro center who was union president from 2008-12.
Goodell did not rule out such an approach, saying "everything is on the table." He did say during the owners' meetings, "We've had meetings with the union, we've discussed alternatives."
Mawae adds it is "imperative" that a revamped player conduct policy, and particularly the commissioner's role in handing out punishment, be reached the same way the 2011 collective bargaining agreement was done. And that took more than four months to put together once the lockout began in March that year.
The league, and particularly Goodell, have been accused of lacking transparency in their handling of the Ray Rice case. Through the union, Rice currently is appealing his indefinite suspension handed out after he originally was given a two-game ban. Goodell subsequently admitted that punishment was wrong and the league toughened discipline for personal misconduct. Goodell changed Rice's suspension once a video of Rice punching his then-fiancee in a casino elevator was released publicly, citing the video as new evidence.
Some have criticized the union for carrying out the appeal.
"We have a responsibility to support those guys, even the ones who make bad decisions," says Foxworth, the union president from 2012-14 and a defensive back in the NFL for six years.
A neutral arbitrator, Judge Barbara S. Jones, is hearing the appeal, and the NFLPA wants that to be the procedure going forward in all cases involving league discipline.
"Part of the reason we got into the position where we were seeking neutral arbitration was because the image of the players is very important to our players," Foxworth says. "We know how poor decisions can color the way society sees us all."
Winston, Mawae and Foxworth all mention the Saints' bounties suspensions in 2012 as being a rush to judgment on the league's part. Former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, appointed by Goodell to handle player appeals in the matter, threw out "all discipline" imposed on linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Scott Fujita, and defensive ends Anthony Hargrove and Will Smith.
They say that's a prime example of the importance of a measured approach and of having a neutral arbiter making final, binding decisions.
"Tagliabue was as close as we could get to a neutral arbitrator back then, and it is hard to say he was that," Foxworth says. "But he was a reasonable arbitrator and, yes, it was odd that it was a former commissioner who found we had grounds to disagree."
The union and league have disagreed on an assortment of issues since the 2011 CBA was reached. Their relationship isn't likely to get any closer where the personal conduct policy is concerned.
Winston just wants to see the NFL get it right, no matter how long it takes.
"If you live in a world of knee-jerk reactions or you think only your thought is the right answer," Winston says, "you might have 2,000 members who might disagree with you."
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