NFL Players' Union Seeks New Process for Appealing Illegal Hits

The Jets' Eric Smith, right, was given a one-game suspension and a $50,000 fine for this hit on the Cardinals' Anquan Boldin in September.
The Jets' Eric Smith, right, was given a one-game suspension and a $50,000 fine for this hit on the Cardinals' Anquan Boldin in September. (By Andy Mills -- Associated Press)
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 7, 2008

The NFL and the players' union are at odds over disciplinary actions the league has taken against players for hits that are deemed illegal during games.

Richard Berthelsen, the union's acting executive director, said players believe the league's discipline for on-field actions, those that draw penalties as well as those that do not, has become excessive. The union will seek in labor talks with the league to establish a new system for appeals by which players could attempt to have fines or suspensions overturned or reduced by an independent arbitrator, Berthelsen said in a telephone interview this week.

"It is something the players feel is getting out of hand," Berthelsen said from San Francisco, where the union is involved in litigation. "We've now covered about two-thirds of the league in terms of our player meetings, and we've heard that over and over. On one of the commissioner's conference calls with the players' advisory council a few weeks ago, some of these issues came up. The players definitely feel it has gotten excessive."

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell defended the league's disciplinary measures during an interview this week.

"What we're trying to do is support the policies and the rules that are established -- with a great deal of the players' input, by the way -- and that are designed in large part to protect the players on the field from a safety standpoint, make the game as safe as possible for them," Goodell said after attending a luncheon in Arlington early in the week.

Berthelsen's comments echo public remarks made by several players. Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said last month that the league was making the sport "like a pansy game" and the fines for hits seemed to be more about money than player safety. Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations who is largely responsible for imposing the league's discipline for illegal hits, and another league official later went to Pittsburgh to meet with Polamalu, other Steelers players and Coach Mike Tomlin to discuss the players' concerns.

The union appears to be giving formal backing to the players' complaints, first in a recent written statement posted on its Web site and now with Berthelsen's comments.

Berthelsen said he did not have data available regarding the total amount of this season's fines. But discipline for illegal hits has increased sharply this season, he said.

"There are plays where there is no penalty called and there still is a fine imposed," Berthelsen said. "Now, it stands to reason that some plays are missed on the field. But the players feel there are cases when even the review of the play shows no penalty and there is still a fine imposed. The players know it's a violent game and they feel that's not taken into consideration. It comes up in virtually every conversation that we have with players, and it definitely needs to be addressed at the bargaining table."

As an example, Berthelsen cited the league's one-game suspension and $50,000 fine of New York Jets safety Eric Smith for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin during a September game at Giants Stadium.

"People who have seen the play say there was movement by both players in the air that set up the helmet-to-helmet contact," Berthelsen said. "If it's not intended and it's just something that happens as part of the game, virtually all the players we talk to feel you have to take that into consideration if there was not intent. . . . When someone has to defend their actions, when the league has to defend what it has done to an outside arbitrator -- if it's a safety issue, they should be able to easily demonstrate that to the arbitrator."

The league declined to release specific figures but indicated that fines for on-field rules violations are up marginally this season because of what it called strict enforcement of player safety rules. According to the league, historically there are about 20 such fines assessed per week after a review of the approximately 2,300 plays in that weekend's games. Players are told in their fine letters that "player fines collected by the league are used to support the [union's] Players Assistance Trust and charitable initiatives supporting youth, education and sports-related medical research."

Earlier this season, Goodell sent a memo to players and coaches stressing that player safety was important to the league and warning that illegal hits that pose injury risks would result in severe punishments.

"When somebody uses an illegal technique that we have clearly tried to remove from the game over the last several years, that puts at risk the player who gets hit," Goodell said this week. "But not only the player that gets hit -- also the player doing the striking. We underestimate the importance of protecting the players that are doing the hitting [as well as those] being struck. This is a tough game under any circumstances. Using techniques that clearly increase the risk to either the player being struck or the player doing the striking is something that we have to do everything we can to eliminate from the game. It makes the game safer and hopefully we'll avoid any unnecessary injuries."

On Smith's hit on Boldin, both players reportedly suffered concussions. Boldin also suffered two facial fractures and missed two games after a surgeon repaired the fractures with eight plates and inserted wires in his jaw to realign his bite. Smith's appeal of his suspension and fine reportedly was rejected.

Currently, any appeals by players of disciplinary measures for illegal hits are heard by Goodell or a person he designates. That's the same arrangement used for deciding appeals by players for discipline imposed by the commissioner for off-field misbehavior under the NFL's personal conduct policy.

Berthelsen said the union also will seek to use an outside arbitrator for those appeals. The union pointed out on its Web site that it has had success recently in using the arbitration process to reduce team-imposed penalties on several players. Penalties by teams can be appealed to an arbitrator through a grievance by the union, under the sport's labor agreement.

Goodell said the notion of appeals to an outside arbitrator for certain forms of league-imposed discipline has been raised by the union previously.

"That's not a new issue," Goodell said. "They've raised it before. I think that's one of the things that makes the NFL unique in that they entrust the credibility and the upholding of that credibility publicly to a commissioner. I take that responsibility very seriously. I speak to a wide array of people before I make decisions, including players and including coaches and including owners and others involved with our game. None of those are done without a great deal of consideration."

Goodell toughened the personal conduct policy in 2007 with input from the union. The policy empowers the commissioner to impose discipline even if a player is not charged with or convicted of a crime. It also empowers the commissioner to impose a permanent ban from the league on the worst of repeat offenders.

"We also have some issues with the conduct policy," Berthelsen said. "Without getting into anyone's specific case, if there is discipline imposed before any criminal charges are resolved, we feel that's prejudging the case."

Goodell said of the toughened conduct policy: "That's something that was created with Gene [Upshaw, the union's executive director who died in August] and myself talking to well over 100 players, recognizing that we need to do more to help educate our players and get them in a position where they could make better decisions. When they don't, there are consequences for those actions. No one likes the discipline piece of it, certainly not me. We would love not to have any discipline. The reality is, when there's a violation, there are consequences for it and they'll be held accountable, just like all of us are."

Goodell also pointed out that the NFL has begun sanctioning teams under the conduct policy this season, requiring them under certain circumstances to give to the league a portion of the pay withheld from players who are suspended without pay.

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