New Deal Limits Disciplinary Action

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 10, 2006

The NFL Players Association managed to ensure in the sport's new labor deal that no player will be punished in the foreseeable future the same way that wide receiver Terrell Owens was sanctioned by the Philadelphia Eagles this past season.

The union was unable to overturn Owens's late-season deactivation by the Eagles when it took a case before an arbitrator. But a provision in the six-year extension of the collective bargaining agreement between the players' union and the NFL's franchise owners, which was ratified by the owners Wednesday night, prohibits a team from deactivating a player for disciplinary reasons, union officials said.

"We essentially reversed the T.O. decision for any future cases," Richard Berthelsen, the union's general counsel, said from Hawaii, where he and other union officials are attending meetings of the players' executive board.

Union officials were highly disappointed when arbitrator Richard Bloch ruled in favor of the league and the Eagles in the Owens case. They exercised their right to veto the continued use of Bloch by the league as an arbitrator, and they said they would address the issues raised in the case in their labor negotiations with the owners.

In November, the Eagles suspended Owens for four games without pay for conduct detrimental to the team, then deactivated him with pay for the final five games of the season. The union contended in its case that the deactivation violated the collective bargaining agreement, which listed a four-game suspension without pay as the maximum punishment for conduct detrimental to the team. But Bloch ruled that the Eagles' actions were justified. A league spokesman confirmed that, under the terms of the labor extension, a player can be deactivated week to week but not as a long-term punitive measure.

The new labor deal also prohibits teams from forcing players to return portions of their signing bonuses for misbehavior, according to the union.

The union's leaders had been concerned about the growing frequency of clauses in players' contracts compelling them to return signing-bonus money to their clubs for transgressions ranging from failing drug tests to skipping offseason workouts to participating in recreational activities considered dangerous. Under the labor extension, players can be forced to return bonus money only for a refusal to play, such as a retirement or holdout, according to Berthelsen. The labor deal contains standard language regarding such clauses that will be placed into all players' contracts, Berthelsen said.

The owners and the union formally closed the Maurice Clarett loophole, inserting a provision into the new labor deal that a player must be at least three years removed from high school to be eligible for the NFL draft, Berthelsen said.

The league already had such a rule, but it resulted from an informal agreement between the two sides and was not explicitly stated in the collective bargaining agreement. Clarett challenged that rule and initially won a court ruling making the former Ohio State tailback eligible for the 2004 draft, two years after he left high school. But the league managed to overturn the ruling on appeal, and Clarett was kept out of the draft until last year. League and union officials said at the time they planned to strengthen their legal position against any future challenges to their draft-eligibility requirement by putting the rule in the collective bargaining agreement.

Most importantly to those in the sport, the agreement keeps the league's salary cap system in place, with a system for bolstered revenue-sharing among the teams, and ensures the NFL of labor peace through the 2011 season.

"I think it was important," Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Wednesday night. "Time will tell how important it is. But it was certainly an opportunity to continue building what we've been building. I think it was great for the fans. I think the quality of the game is at a tremendous level. The spread of talent around the league and the ability of teams to become competitive relatively quickly . . . is a great thing. So this preserves all of that."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company