Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Even if you've been living under a rock lately, you have likely heard that the NFL is preparing to implement a three strikes personal conduct policy for its players. Many people have been wondering exactly what will count as a strike under the terms of this policy, which is still very much in the preliminary stages of development. Unlike most of the disciplinary reforms in the NBA and MLB (dress code and new drug policies), this new conduct reform initiative was not suggested by the league office, but by a group of players.

Even though a panel of NFL players presented the idea to the league, I think it's a bad idea. It bothers me because it seems like an artificial reaction. I'm not convinced that these players particularly care about standards of behavior as much as they care about getting press exposure. I also think that they're overreacting to the problem, just like the NBA overreacted to the Artest incident in Detroit. For the life of me, I don't see how a new dress code for a group of overpaid athletes is going to change the culture of the NBA.

The panel of players include such luminaries as TJ Houshmanzadeh, Troy Vincent, Steve Smith, LenDale White, DeAngelo Hall, Jeff Saturday, Ernie Conwell, Jason Witten, Ken Hamlin and Kevin Carter. That doesn't exactly read like who's who of people to trust with anything of importance. LenDale White fell to the second round of last season's draft because scouts were concerned he gained too much weight and used a trumped up hamstring injury to avoid the predraft workouts.

Then there's DeAngelo Hall. As TO's last fan, I can't stand Hall. He is a shameless fraud of a cornerback who's reputation is built on the back of two high profile games. First, on the Monday Night Football opener in 2005 he held TO to 112 yards receiving and kept him out of the end zone. Earlier this season, Hall shut down Chad Johnson. And his wikipedia page reads like a bad middle school book report.

But I think we'll remember Hall as the man who took a courageous stand against TO for the infamous spitting incident this season. A lesser man would have gone after TO on the field, incurring a 15 yard penalty at the least and probably an ejection. A smarter man would have confronted TO after the fact to kick his ass (make no mistake about it, spitting in somebody's face merits a whooping). But it takes a true tough guy to cry and whine to new commissioner Roger Goddell. Unfortunately for Hall, and the country as a whole, the league refused to step in to fight this battle.

As for the heart of the issue, I am not convinced that a one size fits all personal conduct policy is the answer to the league's problem. The Bengals off field issues were an embarrassment to the team and to the league, but were they the worst thing that has ever happened to the Queen City? 9 professional football players were arrested over the course of a year. It's not like they were part of a COBRA plot to conquer Cincinnati by selling poisoned milk to school children.

What worries me is the fact that this policy is reactive rather than proactive. The league is slightly embarrassed. Columnists and talking heads across the country can bury us with the woe is the sports world routine, and God knows they have. Which brings us to this point. These situations ought to be handled on a case by case basis. The NFL has survived for over 80 years without a personal conduct policy. I think this will end up doing more harm than good, especially if they rush it into effect.

In the end, what do the arrests and incidents mean for the overall health of the league? Everybody has been told to be afraid lest the NFL lose fans because a small handful of its players are out of control. Maybe I'm a bad person, but if 9 or 90 Cincinnati Bengals or Seattle Seahawks or Barcelona Dragons run afoul of the law, I'll still watch all the football I can. I doubt very highly that the average fan will leave the league either.

If you don't believe me, just look at the disaster area that is the sports world at the moment. NFL Live still holds the 4:00 time slot on ESPN. The entire NBA season might just have gone up in smoke with the injury to D-Wade. A possible second half run by the Miami Heat was the second biggest story of All Star Weekend, right behind Barkley vs. Bavetta. We're so starved for sports that Daisuke Matsuzaka bedazzling some Red Sox farmhands was a national story. So the NFL isn't losing any prestige over this situation.

They ought to reconsider the 3 strikes policy. I don't see why the new commissioner simply can't review the roster for the Pro Bowl and postseason awards and say player X was suspended for offense Y, QED he's not eligible for the honors in question. Or if we can't trust one man with this grave responsibility, I'm sure an ad hoc committee of coaches or GMs could do it. If we want everything to be decided to the most exacting standard of probity with a minimum of personal rancour and self aggrandisement, I'm sure Jay Mariotti or Dan Shaughnessy could be coaxed from the ivory tower.

On another note, America is not rallying around the underdog the way it ought. Barry Bonds is receiving death threats again. At this point, I just don't care anymore. He's almost certainly going to break the home run record with the least amount of class and dignity conceivable. No one believes the this is legitimate except Barry. No one seems to like him except Barry. And it's his fault. It seems like every time he had a chance to do something nice, or cool, or human he's gone the other way. So he'll get no sympathy from me, which is strange since I usually regard widespread dislike as a credit to a person rather than a demerit.

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