Players could face tougher penalties for misbehavior

Off-field incidents involving players have brought the NFL under intense scrutiny, Greg Garber writes. Could tougher penalties for bad behavior be next?

Updated: March 14, 2007, 5:24 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Chris Henry, shorn of his familiar dreadlocks and wearing a black leather jacket with a fur-trimmed hood, stood silently in front of the judge.

The Cincinnati Bengals' wide receiver pled guilty to an alcohol-related charge in late January, after supplying three underage females in a Kentucky hotel room. But before Henry served his two days in prison, Kenton County Judge Douglas Grothaus had some harsh words.

NFL personal conduct policy
The NFL's personal conduct policy spells out standards of behavior for players. Policy

The judge, balding and bespectacled, called Henry "the cancer" on the Bengals "that spread and caused [2006] to be the lost season."

"You embarrassed yourself," chided Grothaus. "You embarrassed a lot of people, teammates, friends and family, the city, the fans and myself."

The judge, sounding a lot like a Bengals fan, seemed to take Henry's bad behavior personally. There's a lot of that going around.

In the past 14 months, according to published reports, more than 50 NFL players in a league of approximately 2,000 have run into trouble with the law. Among them is Tennessee Titans cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones, whose presence at a brawl at a Las Vegas strip club Feb. 19 -- he has not been charged with any crime -- brought the conduct of NFL players under intense scrutiny.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesNFL players union executive director Gene Upshaw has stressed to players the importance of staying out of trouble off the field.
"I don't know if it's a tipping point," said NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw, "but it's a touch point that's there, that you can recognize and see."

In the wake of the Las Vegas episode, Robert Susnar, co-owner of Minxx Gentlemen's Club, said "the NFL is starting to look like an organized crime family, and I find that objectionable."

According to league officials, ownership and the players' union, when the 2007 season kicks off there won't be a three-strike policy similar to the one that governs the league substance abuse policy. But there will be harsher penalties in place for players who violate the league's conduct code.

Well before the Jones incident, the league planned a meeting of its conduct advisory committee. It was held three days after the incident, on Feb. 22 at the Westin Hotel in Indianapolis, and included a broad range of participants: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell; Mike Haynes, the league's vice president of player development; Steelers owner Dan Rooney and Broncos owner Pat Bowlen; NFL management council chairman Harold Henderson; Upshaw; union president Troy Vincent; Bengals coach Marvin Lewis; and a number of players, including Steve Smith, LenDale White, Jeff Saturday and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

Despite a sometimes acrimonious collective bargaining negotiation last year, the players' union and the league are on the same page regarding player conduct.

AP Photo/John Raoux Cincinnati wide receiver Chris Henry, at a court appearance in September, is one of nine Bengals arrested in a span of nine months.

"These off-field incidents, the commissioner has really raised the flag on this whole issue," Haynes said. "He's the guy driving the conversations we're having. The idea of the league looking bad, that's a huge concern of his."

Vincent, who played defensive back for the Washington Redskins this past season, attended more than 100 meetings over the past 12 months in his union role. None, he said, was more important than the four-hour session in Indianapolis.

"We all had something at stake," Vincent explained. "And that was preserving our game and controlling its well-being. This goes beyond collective bargaining. One side can't do it on its own.

"Sometimes we're na´ve about things. Very seldom do we take the time to listen to the product. It's time to acknowledge that the product has changed."

The process continues, beginning Friday in Maui, Hawaii, where union representatives meet for four days. Player conduct and how to control it, Vincent said, will be the leading item under discussion.

Last year's owners' meetings in Orlando, Fla., were preoccupied with finding a replacement for commissioner Paul Tagliabue. At this year's meetings March 25-28 in Phoenix, Goodell, his successor, will lead the dialogue concerning player conduct.

"I think we obviously have a problem that we have to address," Bowlen said Tuesday from his Denver office. "When I look at a list of things we have to do, I put it [player conduct] No. 1. I was absolutely amazed at some of things the players had to say."

Houshmandzadeh, like Henry a Bengals wide receiver, also was impressed with the sense of urgency expressed at the meeting in Indianapolis. The players, speaking frankly, said they are tired of being painted with the broad brush of a few knuckleheads.

"A very small percentage of the guys get in trouble," Houshmandzadeh said. "But all people talk about are those guys. They know the difference between right and wrong -- they just hope they don't get caught. That isn't how the majority of guys in the league carry themselves."

Achilles heel

Roger Goodell sees the world from the NFL offices on the 14th through 17th floors at 280 Park Avenue in Manhattan. Gene Upshaw's vantage point from the eighth floor at 2021 L Street, just a handful of blocks from the White House in Washington, D.C., is similarly lofty.

These days, the view from the league's two ivory towers is lovely, indeed.

The NFL, by virtually any measure, is the most popular sports league in America. Super Bowl XLI between the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears attracted an estimated 93.15 million viewers, making it the third-most-watched television show in U.S. history, behind the "M*A*S*H" series finale and Super Bowl XXX. According to Forbes Magazine, the average NFL franchise is worth close to $900 million and at least five are worth more than $1 billion. Before the 2006 season, four television networks -- CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN -- signed on to broadcast games. The NFL will receive a guaranteed $3.735 billion each season through 2010. A new collective bargaining agreement ensures that more money than ever trickles down to the players. The salary cap, instituted in 1994 at $34.6 million per team, has more than tripled to $109 million. This month teams have aggressively pursued free agents; some offensive linemen who have never been named to the Pro Bowl will receive more than $5 million per season.

Some high-profile, off-the-field incidents were recently thrown into that rosy equation. In December, in a search of the suburban home of Bears defensive tackle Terry "Tank" Johnson, police claimed it found six firearms, including two assault rifles -- and a body guard named William Posey with marijuana. Johnson was charged with illegally possessing weapons without a valid firearm owner's identification card. Two days later, Posey was killed in a shooting at Ice Bar in Chicago. Johnson, according to police, was at the bar when it happened.

Last Saturday, Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Charles Sharon was charged with grand theft of a firearm and carrying a concealed firearm after his Chevrolet Tahoe was approached by police officers in Ybor City, Fla.. They found a Glock handgun under the driver's seat and eight grams of marijuana in a Jaguars duffel bag, but Sharon's companion claimed it was his. Both charges are third-degree felonies and carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

And on Tuesday, unrestricted free-agent tight end Jerramy Stevens, who has played his entire career with Seattle, was arrested in Scottsdale, Ariz., and charged with driving under the influence and possession of marijuana. Stevens was Seattle's first-round draft choice in 2002.

Upshaw saw it all coming. When he traveled the country, meeting with the teams during 2006 training camp, he had this curt message for the players: The only guys who can screw this thing up are you, the players. It looms as the league's Achilles heel.

Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesNFL players union president Troy Vincent on the player conduct issue: "This goes beyond collective bargaining. One side can't do it on its own."

"He's been saying that for a few years now," Vincent said. "We're always asking, 'How do we make more money?' But the gist of the conversation lately has been talking about people getting murdered, arrested and all kinds of law enforcement issues. The most important thing is, everybody needs to be held accountable."

Said Haynes: "The players can police things, they can be proactive. We may start seeing more of that."

Twenty years ago, Giants head coach Bill Parcells artfully used players to police other players. Fullback Maurice Carthon and linebacker Harry Carson were among his team leaders who dealt with indifferent practice attitudes or embarrassing off-field incidents. Back in those days, it seemed to work.

"Today, it's not Jerry Rice giving the ball to the referee after scoring a touchdown, Emmitt Smith or Jim Brown," lamented Houshmandzadeh. "They didn't draw attention to themselves. I think Deion [Sanders, a first-round draft choice of the Atlanta Falcons in 1989] was the first guy to draw attention to himself. A lot of guys want to emulate that."

Houshmandzadeh said that one of the downsides of free agency is a lack of long-entrenched leaders.

"In the meeting," he said, "it was a consistent discussion point: 'Let the veterans in the locker room handle the younger players.' But for the most part, teams release veteran players. Without those guys, it's the blind leading the blind.

Added Vincent, who has played 15 NFL seasons, starting in Miami in 1992: "When I walked into the locker room, I shut up when John Offerdahl walked in. Getting your ankles taped, same thing. Today, with these men, there's no respect. Where they come from, they are just not aware. It's a way of life."

A striking difference

The big headline after the meeting in Indianapolis was: Players suggest three-strike rule at meeting.

"I started hearing that, I was shocked," Houshmandzadeh said. "Because I was in the meeting. It was like, 'Man, where'd that come from?' It was just one of those things that sounded good."

According to those in the meeting, there was no such consensus.

"A player mentioned it in an interview afterward, and some reporter took it and ran with it," Vincent said. "I don't think we would agree to that."

The substance abuse policy defines quite clearly what constitutes a strike. The area of personal conduct, as Upshaw pointed out, would be far murkier.

"If we look at arrests, police just being called or being in an establishment where a fight breaks out … it's going to be very, very difficult to define what a strike is," Upshaw said. "I agree that we have to do something. It is something we will address with our meetings."

Currently teams are responsible for disciplining players for football-related matters like being late for meetings or losing playbooks and the like. The league's personal conduct code states, "engaging in violent and/or criminal activity is unacceptable." Any player arrested for or charged with conduct prohibited by the policy is required to undergo a consultation and additional counseling as directed. Any player convicted or admitting to a criminal violation is subject to discipline at the discretion of the commissioner.

Teams, in consultation with the league, sometimes discipline the players themselves. Tank Johnson and Pacman Jones sat out a game because their head coaches insisted on it. Both players are likely to be subject to further discipline from the league.

While no one interviewed for this story would publicly elaborate on specific changes under discussion, the modified policy is likely to include longer suspensions, perhaps as many as six or eight games -- half the season -- for some egregious offenses. Banishment for life for repeated offenses also has been discussed. Another possible change is the strengthening of the discipline language in the collective bargaining agreement. Fines are likely to be increased, but few think that will help.

"Oh, no. No," Houshmandzadeh said. "The only thing you can do is prevent a guy from playing. There's no other deterrent.

"Somebody is going to have to be made an example of. 'You guys are the guinea pigs, that's how it's going to be. You guys brought a lot of attention to it.' Whatever is handed down, guys coming into the league, maybe it will help them understand the ramifications of a right decision and a wrong decision."

Education is another important piece. There are plans to expand the rookie symposium and add more awareness programs for players.

Jason Bridge/US PRESSWIREA small percentage of players gets in trouble, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh says, but the ones who do are a big concern.

"We had a player murdered," Bowlen said. "That incident with Darrent Williams brought attention to this whole issue. I think it's important to educate the players as to what's out there, the dangers they have to avoid. We haven't done a good job of that.

"Things have changed, at least in Denver. There is a significant gang presence that might not have been there 10 years ago. Vigilance -- for instance, our director of player security [Dave Abrams] comes from the ranks of the police -- is critical."

WSMV, Channel 4 in Nashville, recently was contacted by NFL Films, which was looking for footage of Jones' off-field missteps. Reportedly, it's for a video shown to teams at training camps that demonstrates improper behavior.

Jones, who has had at least 10 documented brushes with the law since he was drafted by the Tennessee Titans two years ago, has become the poster child for bad behavior in the NFL.

Haynes said he has had several talks with the 23-year-old.

"You keep talking, keep trying to educate," Haynes said. "I'm not done trying. I have not given up on this young man. But one thing we know for sure, you can't tell people what to do. The only way change happens is when people want to change.

"Based on the conversations in the [Indianapolis] meeting, for guys who don't get it -- don't want to get it -- guys would be OK eliminating them from the league. If there are a few bad apples, it probably makes sense to remove the apples before more damage is done."

Last year, the buzzword around draft time was "character." Successful teams such as the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers have stressed it for some time, and the 2006 draft saw a number of character-challenged players -- including Marcus Vick, Dusty Dvoracek, Winston Justice and A.J. Nicholson -- tumble into lower rounds than where their ability suggested they would be selected.

Byron Hetzler/US PRESSWIREBroncos owner Pat Bowlen: "I think it's important to educate the players as to what's out there, the dangers they have to avoid."

Tougher sanctions on player behavior -- including financial penalties for franchises that have repeat offenders -- some league officials believe, will force teams to be more careful when factoring off-field behavior into the scouting grade. Losing a marquee player for four or six games would put a team at a competitive disadvantage.

"I think they're going to be a lot more careful, not a little," Bowlen said. "If players have serious character flaws coming out of college, our club will have a serious question about that particular player."

The Bengals, in particular, have been criticized for underestimating character. In a span of nine months, nine Bengals players were arrested; three days before Henry pled guilty, cornerback Johnathan Joseph became the ninth when he was charged with marijuana possession. In two seasons with Cincinnati, Henry's previous brushes with the law include charges for marijuana possession, aggravated assault with a firearm and driving under the influence. Outside of the recent two-day sentence, he has not served any additional time, though he missed three games after team and league suspensions in 2006.

Houshmandzadeh admitted he is tired of hearing about the arrests of his teammates, but said it just comes with the territory. He believes his hard-line view on player behavior, his support for tougher sanctions, is probably more the norm among NFL players today than the exception.

"I'm cool -- it doesn't affect me," he said from his home in Los Angeles. "Everybody should feel that way. So do the right thing, and it won't affect you, either."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.