NFL leaders are scheduled to meet on Tuesday with top players’ association representatives and the focus of discussions is expected to revolve around workplace conduct and playoff expansion. In a sign of the importance of the discussions, both Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA Executive Director Demaurice Smith are expected to attend. Player workplace environment has been a hot button topic in league circles since the bullying allegations surrounding the Miami Dolphins came to light last season. As to playoff expansion, any proposal by the league to add to games played must be approved by the players.
The workplace conduct discussions will be ticklish for both sides. Many former players who now serve as sports commentators speak of the locker room as a special place that no one can understand except for the players themselves. While most current players no doubt want to have the freedom to be themselves in the locker room, all would benefit from conduct rules prohibiting harassment in their workplace. The difficult aspect to creating rules for player conduct lies in the enforcement of the rules. Many players are distrustful of Goodell and consider him heavy handed when it comes to laying down fines and suspensions. They do not have a high level of trust that disciplinary sanctions could be levied in a fair way in regards to conduct in their inner sanctum. The locker room is more or less off limits to coaches, and the players surely have no great desire to share the locker room with the Commissioner.
The primary buzz words with respect to Goodell and the NFL owners are “protect the shield.” The massive negative media fallout suffered by the NFL following the Jonathon Martin bullying allegations against Richie Incognito and other O-Line team members is not something the NFL powers that be want to see repeated. As yet unclear are the types of rules and enforcement mechanisms desired by the NFL. Given that no concrete proposal appears to be on the table, a successful meeting for the ownership representatives could be an agreement in principle that rules need to be adopted and that necessary follow-up will occur this off-season. While the players are not looking forward to additional rules, the debacle which occurred in Miami likely forces their hands to continue discussions. The issue will not go away of its own accord.
Possible playoff expansion, if it is to occur, will involve horse trading between the players and the league. The players ultimately benefit from adding two teams to the playoff format because they share in league revenues and more playoff games will generate more money. The players do not care for the four game preseason and will likely attempt to cut back the exhibition games. Any games played create risks for the players and they would rather subject their bodies to games that count instead of meaningless exhibitions. The fourth exhibition game each preseason is well known to include little playing time by starters. Maybe one series of playing time at most. Reaching agreement for two additional playoff teams is a distinct possibility.
Increasing the playoff field is not without risk to the league. While a focus on player workplace conduct in the meeting will not have a direct impact on NFL fans, tweaking the playoffs does involve analysis of potential fan displeasure. Many criticize the NBA regular season as having little meaning if 16 teams can qualify for the playoffs. No one wants to see teams without winning records qualify for the post season. The NFL never makes moves without careful consideration of competitive balance and fan reaction. Given the appetite for playoff football and the apparent distaste for preseason games by fans and players, a strong potential exists for tweaking the playoff format. The major impediment could be the owners themselves because they tack the preseason games onto season ticket packages.
The high level meeting between the NFL and top players’ association representatives to occur tomorrow will focus on workplace conduct and possible changes to the playoffs. All those waiting to hear the results no doubt hope that the meetings will be productive and provide a basis for sensible workplace behavior rules as well as more playoff teams.
Commentary by William Costolo