NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has suspended Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Orlando Brown indefinitely for shoving a league referee to the ground this past Sunday after the player was inadvertently struck in the eye by a weighted penalty flag thrown by the official.
Brown, a native Washingtonian who attended the District's H.D. Woodson High School, was still being treated in Cleveland for vision problems in his right eye. He will not play in the Browns' last regular season game this week against Indianapolis and will forfeit two weeks' pay, about $49,000. Cleveland has a bye in the final week of the regular season.
Tagliabue said in a statement released by the league office yesterday that a hearing on the incident will be conducted after the Pro Bowl in February.
"We continue to hope Orlando Brown makes a full recovery from his injury," Tagliabue said in the statement. "However, as everyone has acknowledged, the injury to the player was completely inadvertent and did not justify his action against the referee. It was an unfortunate accident but we cannot condone under any circumstances physical contact against our game officials."
Cleveland head coach Chris Palmer had no comment on the suspension. Team president Carmen Policy said in a statement the Browns would not comment because "the league has complete jurisdiction over this incident. The matter remains open pending a hearing."
"I would prefer we wait until after the hearing before making a comment," said Tom Condon, Brown's agent.
Sources said yesterday the league could take further action if Brown, who already has publicly apologized for pushing referee Jeff Triplette, does not show the proper contrition and remorse at the February hearing.
Brown earns $420,000 in base salary this year, but is scheduled to earn a $2.1 million base salary next year. If he is suspended for games next season, he would lose about $240,000 per week.
Meanwhile, it also was learned yesterday that Brown has retained the New York law firm of Weil, Gotschal and Manges to represent him in all future proceedings. The firm, which also represents the NFL Players Association, informed the league's Management Council of its involvement in the case by letter yesterday.
Condon, Brown's agent, also may have a potential conflict of interest in the case. An employee of Cleveland-based International Management Group (IMG), he also has represented the Professional Football Referees Association in its negotiations with the league on collective bargaining agreements since 1994.
Tagliabue did not interview either Brown or Triplette, according to league sources. He reviewed the tape of the incident and consulted other league officials before making his ruling yesterday.
It came on the same day Brown learned he must stay in the hospital because of new bleeding in his right eye. Brown appeared at a news conference at the Cleveland Clinic on Tuesday, but said he was was unable to read a statement of apology that instead was read by his wife, Myra. At one point, he said the television lights were bothering him, and the session ended.
Brown said Tuesday he has been told by doctors he might have permanent vision damage. Palmer said he did not know if the new bleeding was caused by stress from Brown's news conference.
"I want the fans to understand that I attempted to return to the play, not to confront the official," Brown said in his statement. "I hope to regain all of my eyesight so I can continue to play for the Browns, the Cleveland fans and to continue to care for my family."
The league has said it will review the way officials toss flags. The flags are weighted with about three ounces of BBs so they can fall immediately at the spot of a foul. Sometimes they are thrown forward rather than up.
Brown, whose father lost his sight to glaucoma in 1993, said he deeply regretted pushing Triplette. He said he acted as he did because his father, Claude, is blind. The player said he has been told he could have permanent vision damage because of his family history of eye problems.
"As you can see from the tape, he is not moving toward the official, he's going directly to the huddle," Condon said during Tuesday's news conference. "He's almost in the huddle when the official intercepts him, either to say he was sorry or to tell him he had to leave the field for one play. I've heard both versions, and I'm not sure which is accurate."
Condon was asked about a possible lawsuit against the league if Brown's injury is career-ending.
"Our main concern right now is just to have him regain his vision and be able to continue to play," he said. "But certainly we're going to discuss some of those type of issues with the league and the players' association."