NFL's desire to 'clean up the game' will be easier said than done

Wednesday March 26th, 2014

Roger Goodell and the NFL's competition committee want to return an "element of respect" to the game.
John Raoux/AP

ORLANDO -- The NFL has always been a reactive body in regards to whatever it deems the most pressing problem of the moment, so the news that it's latest goal is to return "an element of respect'' to the game -- both on field and in the locker room -- is an understandable development in light of Miami's ugly bullying scandal that dominated the headlines and focused scrutiny on the league's workplace environment last season.

But I'm willing to make a prediction that the process of "cleaning up the game'' will prove considerably more difficult than the first step of issuing a strongly worded edict from the league's competition committee, as happened here this week at the conclusion of the NFL's annual meeting in a glitzy Central Florida hotel.

Trying to foster a more respectful culture in the game is an admirable and well-intentioned effort. I'm not making light of it, or forecasting its failure. But raising the level of civility and sportsmanship in football, of course, will not be as easy as raising the height of the goal post uprights, which was another move the NFL made this week. The uprights must conform to the league's will, but it always gets trickier when you attempt to change people.

I get the emphasis on the conduct issue and applaud the effort. But I can't help but wonder what comes next. Will this be an enforceable mid-course correction the game is capable of making, and will the forceful words by the league produce fewer offensive words and behavior on the field and in the locker room? And what will pass for noticeable and real results when the 2014 football season arrives later this year? Will the NFL make for a less crass work environment from this point forward?

"We're going to clean the game up on the field between the players -- the in-your-face taunting, those type of things, the language,'' said St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, a longtime member of the NFL's competition committee, in announcing the league's "point of emphasis'' on unsportsmanlike behavior and language on Wednesday. "We're going to raise the standard on the field. We've got to bring the element of respect to its highest level back to our game.''

It all sounds good. But will it stick? It has a much better chance to inspire long-lasting change if it's more than just the game officials who are charged with throwing more flags in order to modify the language and behavior of players during games. The effort to truly raise the level of conduct within the NFL must involve a league-wide approach to the issue, with multiple points of emphasis and a 24/7 mentality that extends far past game days.

Fisher and the league seem to understand that this can't be a cosmetic fix. Last year's sordid Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin saga got most of the attention, but there was also the spectacle of a player (Washington tackle Trent Williams) and an official (umpire Roy Ellison) reportedly aiming profanities and racial slurs at one another during a Redskins-Eagles game in Philadelphia (Ellison was suspended for one game without pay). In another instance, Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver was captured on film twice flipping the bird to the game officials after calls went against Oakland in a game against Pittsburgh. He was later fined by the league, and those were just some of the incidents that prompted the NFL to confront the growing conduct problem.

"We agreed that we have an issue on the field and we agreed that we are going to get it under control as soon as we possibly can,'' Fisher said. "Our taunting [penalties] increased from nine [in 2012] to 34 last year, and we're going to effect change immediately, and that change will be effected as early as OTAs when the players come back [to team complexes]. We've got to change our conduct on the field. It's a leadership thing and it starts with leaders on a team.''

I agree with Fisher on that point. It is about leadership and whether or not players will tolerate offensive language and behavior to go on among teammates, and whether or not coaches are aware enough to both monitor their locker rooms and set the appropriate example of behavior during games. If a coach goes crazy on a referee on the sideline, will the players act much differently toward the officials?

The NFL has had these penalties against unsportsmanlike behavior in the rulebook for years, but now the league is empowering and encouraging game officials to crack down on taunting and abusive language. That promises to be anything but a seamless transition. Instead of issuing the warnings that often never preceded any penalty or real punishment, officials now will be asked to throw flags without a warning if the offense is egregious enough, and to be on the lookout for any sign of racial or sexually offensive slurs.

And when those words come from the bottom of a pile that features several players fighting for a loose football? Or when one crew of officials becomes known for over-sensitivity to language and another tends to let it slide? Who really knows if you can begin to enforce equitable punishment in those types of situations, but the NFL clearly decided to err on the side of discipline this year to see what happens. Game officials might have enough on their hands these days without adding another point of emphasis to worry about, but the league felt it was a necessity to do something about taunting and abusive language.

"The NCAA is hoping for us to do something at our level and we've got to take the lead,'' said Fisher, adding that taunting is now a "front of the book'' issue for the competition committee, in part because college players see the on-field behavior of pro players and choose to mimic it.

I'll have to see the level of change the NFL's crackdown can accomplish before judging the success or failure of its on-field efforts, but it's not as hard for me to believe the league will never again suffer the kind of stain the Dolphins' toxic locker room left on the NFL's reputation. You're never going to make a locker room resemble a corporate board room in terms of acceptable behavior and language, but there's a lot of room for improvement between those two poles.

The Miami scandal at least served the useful purpose of educating everyone in the NFL on what will no longer be tolerated or overlooked in the way of what can be said or done to a player or club employee, by other players or employees. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made it clear Wednesday that the locker room culture must be part of the game's change. It will not longer be solely a players' sanctum.

"Locker rooms are unique,'' Goodell said. "There are unique things that we have to think about. We want them to be professional. We want them to be comfortable -- everyone in that locker room -- so they can focus on doing their job. That's what we all owe them.

"This is a professional workplace for everybody. That's players, coaches, trainers, equipment men, executives. All of us expect that and it is our job to make sure we deliver that. I think this is going to be a collective effort.''

It needs to be. The league's renewed emphasis on respect and the cleaning up of the game won't succeed otherwise. Taking the steps this week toward a focus on improving conduct was the direction the NFL had to head. But those were just strong words for now. What comes next and how the mechanics of that behavior modification works is the headline that really matters.

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