The NFL and team owners have begun “informal discussions” with the players’ union about potential changes to the sport’s system of player discipline and other issues related to the two sides’ labor deal, Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II said Tuesday.
Rooney’s comments are the first formal confirmation the owners are tying changes to Commissioner Roger Goodell’s authority in player discipline to an extension of the labor deal with the union. They also appear to signal that the owners do not intend to make those changes at this point in time without such an extension.
Rooney said no formal negotiations are scheduled yet. He also said he does not expect the owners and the NFL Players Association to be able to strike a deal on modifications to the disciplinary system — and Goodell’s role in it — within the next few months, given that Rooney envisions any such changes being made as part of an extension of the collective bargaining agreement.
“I don’t think there’s been anything formal in terms of when to begin the process,” Rooney said in a telephone interview. “There have been some informal discussions. No timetable has been discussed. I don’t think it will move at a pace where I could see there being anything as far as a resolution this season.”
Sentiment to change Goodell’s role in the disciplinary process has intensified since U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman this month overturned the four-game suspension imposed by the league, and upheld by Goodell on appeal, on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the long-running DeflateGate case.
But Rooney, a member of the owners’ bargaining committee, said that while the league is willing to discuss changes to the disciplinary process and Goodell’s role in it with the union, the owners won’t necessarily feel an urgent need to implement such modifications based on Berman’s ruling.
“I don’t get a sense from anyone on the committee that the reaction to Judge Berman’s decision should be a need to rush into major changes in the disciplinary system,” Rooney said. “We’ve expressed a willingness to discuss that with the union. But if it is going to come in the context of an extension of the collective bargaining agreement, it will probably be like everything else that involves discussions with the union. It will probably be a long process. I don’t think the timing of it will be soon. I don’t think it will be by the end of the season.”
The day after Berman’s Sept. 3 ruling, an owner said the owners would discuss possible changes to Goodell’s role in the disciplinary process. Last week, a high-ranking official with one NFL team said the owners would negotiate prospective modifications to the disciplinary system and Goodell’s authority with the union in hopes of reaching an agreement possibly by the end of the season.
Goodell said in an interview last week with ESPN Radio that he is open to considering changes to his role in player discipline. But Goodell also expressed reluctance to surrender his authority to hear and resolve players’ appeals in certain disciplinary cases.
The NFLPA is seeking neutral arbitration of players’ appeals of disciplinary measures taken by the league in cases, such as Brady’s, involving the integrity-of-the-game rules and in cases under the sport’s personal conduct policy. Goodell currently is empowered to hear and resolve appeals in those cases. The sport has neutral arbitration of appeals in other disciplinary cases, including fines and suspensions for illegal on-field hits and cases under the drug policies.
When the owners ratified a revised personal conduct policy late last year, the league put initial disciplinary decisions in the hands of an NFL disciplinary officer but maintained Goodell’s authority to hear appeals.
The union has had a string of successes in contesting disciplinary measures taken by the league. Before Brady’s case, the NFLPA successfully challenged suspensions of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy under the personal conduct policy. The Peterson and Brady cases ended up in court.
The league is appealing Berman’s decision in the Brady case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Brady is eligible to play while the appeal proceeds and he threw four touchdown passes in the Patriots’ victory over the Steelers last Thursday night in the NFL’s season-opening game.
The labor deal between the league and union currently runs through 2020. Eric Winston, the offensive lineman for the Cincinnati Bengals who is the union’s president, said during training camp that he cannot envision the players agreeing to a new CBA without neutral arbitration in disciplinary cases.
Rooney said Tuesday that other issues will be open for discussion as part of a potential extension of the labor deal.
“I think it will be a broad discussion,” Rooney said. “They [the players and union] want some significant changes. They’ve mentioned what they want to do about arbitration. Obviously if we get into a discussion about extending the collective bargaining agreement, there are a lot of issues that will come up. The disciplinary process will be a significant part of it. Economics will come up, the economics of the CBA and whether we should tweak anything.”
During the last set of labor negotiations, the owners proposed reducing the preseason from four to two games per team while extending the regular season from 16 to 18 games per club. The union objected vehemently on player-safety grounds and the owners abandoned their 18-game proposal.
More recently, a reduction of the preseason has been possibly linked to a potential expansion of the NFL playoff field. The league could expand the postseason field from 12 to 14 teams, adding two extra opening-round playoff games annually (with two fewer clubs receiving first-round byes).
“You can certainly have a discussion of offseason programs and practice schedules and those sorts of things,” Rooney said. “I really do think we need to figure out how we can do a better job of developing young players, and particularly quarterbacks. We need to figure out how to do that. … I haven’t heard anyone on our side talk about 18 games in a long time. I think all of those things will wind up being discussed. I can’t tell you what the package might end up being, X for Y. But I think all of them will be discussed.”