To the Class of 2016...
Whether you are a rookie in professional sports, an undergraduate athlete, or in youth sports, the next four years will be among the most exciting and change-filled periods in the history of your sport. For you, this rookie class of NFL players, you will likely only get these four years to experience the game that you love. The core principle you should hold onto during this time and beyond, however, is one you have been taught from the first time you strapped on your helmet: Be a good sport.
A good sport means playing the game with integrity, honesty and with the spirit of improving the game to which you are dedicated. It means that sometimes the spirit of the rules supersede the letter of the rules in order to achieve something greater, or share something special.
What is sometimes forgotten is that being a good sport is both a personal and institutional obligation. Youth coaches like me and coaches throughout all sports try to instill the personal code that we learned from our coaches and parents when we laced our cleats, practiced our dribble, or broke in our glove. We remember it as a code and as an unquestioned dedication to something bigger than a single game, a play, a score, or ourselves. I still believe in this code, and it is what I have had the pleasure of instilling in my kids, just as my coach passed on from his coach, and so forth.
Still, the personal code should never overshadow or replace the institutional obligation to be a good sport. At a time when high profile allegations, lawsuits, trials, convictions, acquittals and arrests dominate the media cycle along with serious questions of youth sports and student-athletes, many of us debate what it means for a sport, league, governing body or organization to be a good sport.
The personal code dictates that each individual athlete recognizes her obligations, acknowledges her weaknesses, and builds upon her strengths. Every athlete should admit when he is wrong and commit himself to correct mistakes to make himself and those around him better tomorrow than they were yesterday.
Now imagine a world where we, as fans, demand these same commitments from the institutions of sport: from a league, a sports organization, a governing body, a team, a college or university, an enforcement association, or a conference. As we look at those institutions today, how many do you believe fall short of the very code that you hope your kids and their teammates uphold every day?
Making sure the NFL is a good sport for the players was at the heart of what our Players Union tried to achieve during the CBA negotiations, and we are proud of the outcomes. The NFL players themselves: created nearly $1 billion in new benefits for former players; created new neurocognitive- and concussion-related benefits that reach back to include former players; guaranteed contracts against injury into the third year of a player's contract; established new mechanisms to hold team medical personnel accountable to established standards and guidelines; decreased exposures to concussive and sub-concussive events by decreasing the offseason, limiting contact in and regulating the length of practices; and commissioned hundreds of millions of dollars for research to help current and former players. The fact is that players fought for and earned virtually all of these advancements in an effort to make their sport a good sport. For the players, it wasn't about "millionaires vs. billionaires" or about a "money grab."
No group of players in history did as much as this group to make the NFL a good sport. They set the stage for even greater things from players like Ben Watson, Domonique Foxworth, Tyson Clabo and Matt Hasselbeck, who follow players like Kevin Mawae, Tony Richardson, Mike Vrabel and Brian Dawkins. For every high-profile player leader like Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning, there were hundreds more who committed themselves to the past, present and future because of a belief in their code of the meaning of a good sport.
During the course of that fight, we championed the rights of stadium workers like UNITE union member John Marler, who would have lost his job in a lockout. We stood up for John and he stood up for us because it was clear that his beloved Lions were a part of his life, his livelihood, and his community. Today, we have joined the debate on issues like the NFL's lockout of the referees, club administration of prescription pain medication and discussing what the allegations in the concussion lawsuits mean for players, the future of football and the obligations of a good sport.
For the group of NFL players that experienced this fight and for our player leaders today, the blessing is that the commitment to good-sport principles is already having an impact far beyond the NFL. During the last three years youth sports like Pop Warner -- as well as high school and college programs -- have all changed practices, compliance procedures and medical response and attention. Medical studies and research that was institutionally suppressed has not only been recognized, but incorporated into the protocol of sports.
Even beyond the collective bargaining process, players instituted hotlines and processes to aid former and current players in distress, combined our current and former player meetings, increased regulations on agents and instituted new obligations on financial consultants because our code obligated us to look beyond our needs and consider the needs of others. We have by no means become perfect and we will commit ourselves to being better.
Institutions, however, can become better only by embracing the same code we teach and have been taught. Simple questions lead to simple answers. Can an institution discipline its way to becoming a good sport? Can it regulate its way to becoming a good sport? No institution can become good by forcing its way to being good. Accordingly, the process by which an institution decides a player's fate is as important as the final decision it makes. Just because the letter of the law suggests that it "can be," doesn't absolve us from asking "should it be?"
Those who truly love sports and those who participate in sports love it because of its risks, rewards, honor and history. As we embrace those things honestly, we expect that all of those who are involved with the institution of sport are honest with us as both players and fans. A breach of that honesty by them is as defacing and dishonorable as any breach by a player.
That is why this NFLPA engages in debate of obligations that a university has to its student-athletes, the obligations of fairness and transparency by an anti-doping agency to athletes, the obligations of fairness by owners and teams to players and the dedication to fairness from leagues to players and officials. We do so because we believe in being a good sport and fighting -- regardless of whether we win or lose -- if necessary in order to achieve it.
So on a hot summer Washington, D.C. afternoon spent watching my son's tournament, my hope is that he and his teammates commit themselves to being good sports and that whatever sport your sons and daughters play, it will be good to them as well.