Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: NFL Again at a Crisis Point with Player Conduct

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterMay 28, 2014

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1. Bad guys are winning the NFL image war

Ray Rice faces a "significant punishment" from the NFL, according to several team officials familiar with the situation, for punching his then-fiancee in the face and knocking her unconscious, followed by his videotaped dragging of her body from an elevator. Expect him to be docked multiple games. 

In a great piece of irony, rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro, the player Baltimore drafted in the fourth round in many ways to replace Rice during his expected suspension, was himself arrested and charged with destruction of property and being drunk in public. He is the fourth Ravens player arrested this year.

And the arrest story doesn't stop there.

The NFL must somehow address its significant issue involving Rice and players like him. Because in professional football, the bad guys are winning the image war.

In a landslide, to be truthful. In Baltimore, Rice's press conference, one of the great media abominations of all time, was an embarrassment to the league. To all people with a soul, really. (How it came about is explained here by the Ravens.)

Jim Irsay was arrested with cash and pills in a scene right out of a 1970s movie. Star Indianapolis Colts player Robert Mathis was suspended four games for violating the league's PED policy. San Francisco's Aldon Smith pled no contest to three felony weapons charges and two misdemeanor counts of driving under the influence. The case against former NFL Network star Darren Sharper is both stunning and frightening. Aaron Hernandez, the former Patriots tight end, is scheduled to be arraigned this week on double murder charges. 

Denver's Matt Russell, the team's director of player personnel, is part of a work release program following his DUI guilty plea. Russell crashed into a police cruiser and injured an officer.

The NFL, as it was when Roger Goodell first became commissioner, is at a crisis point. Goodell took a hard line against players soon after taking the job, but years later, it's clear those tactics didn't scare players straight. Little has changed. Hell, now owners are getting into trouble.

The league has no lack of good men. From the commissioner to the players, there are thousands of good men. That's not the issue. The issue is that the number of bad guys—the arrested, the women-beaters, the turds—isn't being reduced. In fact, it's growing.

There are some officials who believe the 24/7 media has totally overblown the issue. That is fair. A player getting arrested will be broadcast. A player hosting a bake sale where the proceeds go to the Girl Scouts will not. But there are actual facts to back the notion the bad dudes are winning the image war. More on that in a moment.

The NFL needs to take more action. The question is what they should do.

The NFL and union do agree on one thing. As part of a new drug policy (still being negotiated), a player would be suspended for a first-time DUI offense. Past that, when you speak to team and league officials, there is a genuine puzzlement as to how to handle the issue. 

The problem is the NFL has gone the tough-on-crime route. It didn't work.

It was just seven years ago when Goodell introduced a new stricter personal conduct policy. The key aspect of the policy was that repeat offenders could be disciplined before the case was fully adjudicated. The new policy came after there were some 50 player arrests from about 2006 to mid-2007.

"I hope this sends a message to people in our league for how to conduct themselves," New England owner Robert Kraft told USA Today's Jarrett Bell at the time. "We have to be careful. People in America can't relate to overindulged athletes not acting responsibly."

David Goldman/Associated Press

Goodell said at the time: "It is important that the NFL be represented consistently by outstanding people as well as great football players, coaches, and staff. We hold ourselves to higher standards of responsible conduct because of what it means to be part of the National Football League. We have long had policies and programs designed to encourage responsible behavior, and this policy is a further step in ensuring that everyone who is part of the NFL meets that standard. We will continue to review the policy and modify it as warranted."

The policy came into effect mainly because of troubled players like Pacman Jones, Chris Henry, Mike Vick and Ben Roethlisberger.

The problem was that while the policy was a hit with law-and-order folks, it has basically done very little to stop players from misbehaving. USA Today chronicled 56 player arrests in 2013, a disturbing number of them involving violence against women. That number of arrests is more than the arrests that inspired the original tougher policy.

So here we are again, another crisis point.

And again, the bad guys are winning the image war.

2. Broncos recovered from Super Bowl loss

This from one of the NFL's good guys, Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas, to Bleacher Report: "We've recovered from the Super Bowl loss. It wasn't easy, but I think everyone has the right mindset. I'm not saying we're going to win (this season's Super Bowl), but we have all of our confidence back. We know what it takes to reach the Super Bowl. One of the keys obviously is Peyton (Manning). He's setting the tone for us again. He works harder than any of us, and we follow his lead."

3. Aqib Talib is full of it

Do you really think that if Talib was still in New England—the Broncos signed him this offseason—he would say that Manning was better than Tom Brady?

4. Russell Wilson 'more dedicated than ever'

A Seattle Seahawks teammate told Bleacher Report: "He's someone that's always studious and hard working but even more so now. He's pouring everything into football." When asked if his divorce has affected him, the player said: "I've seen the same Russell. I think he wants to prove what we did (winning Super Bowl) was no fluke."

5. Big man cooking ribs

These videos are guaranteed to make you smile. New England Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork...cooking ribs. Just because.

6. Richie Incognito still can't get NFL job

The plump face of the Miami Dolphins' bullying scandal is still attempting to get back into the NFL. And still can't. Incognito's representatives have been contacting NFL teams over the past weeks and months, but according to several team officials, there's been zero interest.

"He's trying to get back in the game, but the door remains shut," said one general manager. "No one trusts him."

Why would they?

If a team during training camp or the season loses a bunch of linemen—like, all of them—then Incognito would get a look. But for now, nothing.

7. The issue will never go away—and it shouldn't

Super Bowl winner Mike Holmgren joins a list of former NFL stars—as well as a war hero—who have called for Washington's NFL team to eradicate its racist nickname. 

In an interview with a Seattle radio station, Holmgren said the following (via The Washington Post):

Because of what it signifies and what it means to so many people. I’m not talking football fans; I’m talking about Native Americans and all that. Yeah. Just change the name. Big deal. Change the name. 

You know, I’m an old history teacher. And I think if you read enough of that stuff and you see how people were treated, I think it’s the right thing to do. Now, apparently 50 Senators also agree with me.

No, the issue won't go away, and it shouldn't.

8. Manziel bashing

Can we stop, please? It's getting ridiculous. So Johnny Manziel hangs out after 10 at night. And takes pictures with pretty ladies. Lots of pretty ladies. Lots and lots and lots of pretty ladies. And maybe—oh my gosh—he even has sex with them! Nooooooooo! An NFL quarterback likes women? Are you serious?

It's gotten so bad that Manziel felt the need to respond to the bashing of his extracurricular activities.

It's almost comical. Or sad.

9.  A great 400-pound story

At 12 years old, Daniel McCullers weighed 250 pounds. As a high school senior, he was 400 pounds. How he went from a kid who ate Doritos, drank soda and played Madden to a Pittsburgh Steelers draft pick is a great story (read it in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review) of perseverance. It's one of those stories you don't hear much about but are the lifeblood of the NFL. 

10. Could Russell Westbrook star in the NFL?

I tweeted this about the Oklahoma City Thunder star:

NFL tight end Tom Crabtree, one of my favorite players to follow on Twitter, responded:

He's right. Crabtree is always right. I'm assuming Westbrook can catch, and I'm also assuming he could be taught to run routes. My point is that Westbrook is one of, maybe, five or six special athletes in the world with the speed, quickness and strength capable of starring in the two most athletic leagues on the planet, the NFL and NBA.

Westbrook would be a quicker and stronger DeSean Jackson (and maybe as big a pain in the ass). But he would dominate the sport, the way he dominates basketball, when he feels like it. 

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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