Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Year of the Fine

Wes Welker makes snow angels, Shaun Ellis throws a snowball into the stands. Winter fun? Nope, punishable offenses. Those are just the two latest memorable fines of the NFL season.

In Ellis’ case there is an argument to make as far as fan safety, though they had incited it, and ultimately it was a friggin snowball, and the fan even raised it in triumph afterward. But ok, the technicality remains. We’ll move on to the more egregious fines this year and there have been plenty of them.

It’s not your imagination. According to Jay Glazer, it’s official: “The NFL has placed an emphasis this year on player conduct both on and off the field. They have come down hard this year on players — harder than in any year past — when it comes to setting a harsh tone through the fine system.”

Yep, 2008 is the year of the fine.

- Ryan Clark fined for honoring Sean Taylor.
- Ronnie Brown fined for dancing.
- Chris Johnson fined for playing the bongos.
- Lamar Woodley fined for sacking Jason Campbell “in an intimidating manner.”
- DeSean Jackson fined for posing.
- Joey Porter fined for “verbal abuse.”
- Mascots fined for being mascots
- Randy Moss fined for saying there were "iffy calls."
- Justin Tuck fined for "tackling the quarterback with full body weight."

There are three categories of fine here:
1. Celebration
2. Speaking out
3. Protecting players

All three causes for fine have been enforced more and more over the past decade, but the recent increase in both frequency of fines and amount per fine (Moss $20,000 for his seemingly inoffensive remark) has Roger Goodell’s fingerprints all over it. From the moment he came into the league player policing has been his top priority.

He is “Fidel Goodell” as Dan LeBatard called him in a TBL chat.
“Goodell is a communist dictator. Fidel Goodell. He makes up the rules as he goes along. I can’t believe the way he has skated just circumventing our entire justice system by banning guys before they, you know, are convicted, and everyone just sort of applauds because it is the easy thing for him to do from a public-relations standpoint and it does nothing more than make him look good. It isn’t like guys aren’t getting in trouble anymore. Now they just drunk drive and flee their wrecked car. He hasn’t changed behavior. He has just done the easy thing and filed it under leadership. How would you feel if, for whatever reason, you were arrested three times because, as an example, the police just felt like bothering the rich black guy. But you weren’t guilty. And you went into work, and they told you that you’d have to miss three months without pay. And then, as seems to be the case with Tank Johnson and Chris Henry, it is later proven that you didn’t really do anything wrong on your last incident. That would kind of suck. I know these guys make very poor martyrs. Getting arrested a bunch of times seems like something most of us can avoid doing. But unfair is unfair and it would be nice if the commissioner of the league at least let the legalities play out before he starts swinging his dick. What he’s doing isn’t tough. It is easy.”
LeBatard specifically addresses the off-field stuff, but it is part of the big picture that is Goodell’s police state policies.

The Tuck fine, for example, was later rescinded upon appeal. Specifically, as noted in the above FanHouse link, Goodell himself cancelled the fine after seeing the clip for the first time and acknowledging how absurd the fine was. The bigger point here is not that justice was done in absolving Tuck, but that Goodell has successfully instilled a reactionary culture in which Tuck was unjustly penalized in the first place.

Celebration penalties were ratcheted up starting in 2004 after TO pulled out the sharpie in ‘02 and Joe Horn the cell phone in ‘03, but Goodell has been more than happy to not only continue this policy, but to continue raising celebration fines. After three years of overseeing this policy there is no sign that Goodell will reevaluate its effectiveness (after all the players are still celebrating) or make an investigation into the fan’s sentiment and preference. Choreographed and planned celebrations (two qualifiers on the NFL’s no-no list) are a fixture of NFL history: Billy White Shoes Johnson, The Ickey Shuffle, The Fun Bunch, The Dirty Bird, the Rams’ shadowboxing, and – oh yeah – the still legal Lambeau Leap.

We can understand the NFL’s reasoning for the restrictive celebration rules, but their unintuitive enforcement suggests that their policy is borne of a vague desire not to be embarrassed by the likes of TO. They are either incapable of understanding the nuances of the situation (really, what is the harm of a snow angel?) or unwilling to deal with them carefully. After all, the players are STILL celebrating.

As mentioned, the Lambeau Leap, though obviously premeditated is still legal. Why? Seemingly no other reason other than the NFL judging the anger and annoyance its prohibition would incite would not be worth the trouble. That’s backwards. Their decisions should be guided by what the fans would appreciate most not dislike least. Now the NFL has the awkward policy of allowing one leap into the crowd but not two. Devard Darling found out his leap constituted a “team celebration.” It’s incongruent with their promotion of football as a team game to then enforce regulations that don’t permit non-ball-carriers to join in the celebration.

A more thoughtful policy would acknowledge that a touchdown is worthy of celebration, and one that includes the fans, other non-players one the field (ie bongos), or is a choreographed dance, isn’t inherently in bad taste, bad sportsmanship, or bad for the game.

A reasonable policy would prohibit foreign objects (sharpie, cell phone) and leaving the end zone (TO on the Dallas star), but allow most everything else, with a stipulation that the NFL could still levy fines anytime it judged a celebration to “run counter to the spirit of fun” – or some other purposely vaguely-worded phrase to leave the NFL with the trump card.

Speaking Out
The NFL is silencing their players on and off the field.

Take a moment to consider what Moss actually said. “There were some “iffy calls.” That’ll be 20 grand Randy. Once again, the NFL’s refusal to deal with nuance. While their intent is admirable, the indignation with which the NFL approaches the “referee complaint” issue is laughable. How dare anyone say anything about one of our refs?

On the field, Jerry Porter was fined for trash talking. After Channing Crowder and Matt Light were fined for fighting, Logan Mankins fingered Porter, saying “Any time you have a team with the guy 55 (Joey Porter), he just won't shut up the entire game. Then I think some of the other guys are starting to play the way he does." That halfway intelligible comment lead to a $7,500 fine for Porter.

Yet NFL films regularly mics players, and until just a couple of days ago Porter himself could be found on a youtube clip of an NFL films segment in which he was cursing up a storm, trash-talking the Bengals endlessly.

Both these first two categories fall under the umbrella of self-expression, and here we’ll also include the case of Ryan Clark being fined for writing Sean Taylor’s #21 on his eye black on the anniversary of his death.

Here’s Goodell’s political explanation for the Clark fine:
“We don't allow personal messages…everybody has an interest, everybody has something that's a good cause. But we're a team game, and we represent the NFL. So when we do something, as we did last year with Sean Taylor, we do it collectively."

Player Protection
The rigid enforcement of the first two areas- self expression, simply changes the culture of the NFL, and while it is troubling, compared to this last area, it is more forgivable.

With these sanctions Goodell isn’t just changing the culture, but the game itself.

Back in October Troy Polamalu became one of the few players to address this problem.
“I think regarding the evolution of football, it's becoming more and more flag football, two-hand touch. We've really lost the essence of what real American football is about.”

Take a look at this miraculous Vince Young escape from two years ago (40 second mark):

Now look at the aforementioned Woodley fine (sack #5, 1:15 mark).

The continued prevalence of the Tuck and Woodley fines will make Kiwanuka’s kind of costly cautiousness typical for all defensive players.

Thankfully Kenny Phillips wasn’t fined for this hit, but here’s another example of Mike Pereira’s official 2008 edict, “When in doubt, throw the flag.”

It affects the way fans view the game. I remember watching the Monday night Packers- Saints game at a bar, and when Greg Jennings went across the middle and was cleanly separated from the ball, our instinctual excitement was tempered almost instantly with the now just as instinctual anxiety in anticipation of an unjust penalty.

The fines and penalties have become such a regular feature of the game that the AP felt compelled to report that Hines Ward was not fined for his clean hit on Keith Rivers.

Its a double edged sword. What NFL is realizing is the violence of the game is simultaneously compelling – the oohs and aahs that come from a big hit, and discomfiting – the ex-players complaints about the NFL’s and NFLPA’s negligence in providing sufficient medical treatment and financial compensation for debilitating injuries.

It’s instructive to note that ESPN’s jacked up segment debuted with lots of fanfare, was revised the following year with flashy editing techniques which effectively minimized the perception of impact, and now has been eliminated altogether.

Within his “pansy” comment Polamalu speculated that “it's probably all about money. They’re not really concerned about safety.” This theory might not be so dubious. It’s logical to believe that the NFL would ramp up their superficial player protection in the face of lawsuits from the aforementioned veterans. We say superficial, because, as Mark Schlereth deftly pointed out, the NFL still makes a profit off videos which glamorize hard hitting.

Part of the explanation is the culture of the times. The NHL suspended Sean Avery for talking about his girlfriends. The NFL is more involved in players’ lives on all levels, hiring out private security firms to tail players. It’s best summed up by Clinton Portis. “I don't think the NFL is ever going to be the same. It's less fun now. Everything's a worry, on and off the field.”

But another, equally large part of the explanation is Goodell himself. It makes us wonder how much of this agenda is self serving. How much of it is an attempt by a relatively unknown and young commissioner to try to instantly craft his own legacy, to quickly distinguish himself from Tagliabue by instituting new policies and simultaneously making those policies draconian to make himself appear powerful.

A question of coverage
Notice that most of the above links came from Ryan Wilson, and a few of his colleagues at Fanhouse. They’re the only ones who’ve covered this issue regularly and with any outrage, or at the very least skepticism.

Why is Wilson alone on this? The only thing more shocking than the extent of these policies is that it has yet to become a national story, or that a nationally known columnist hasn’t hammered it (save the on-sabbattical LeBatard's one blip). Is it because so many of the guys that could be expected to do so are tied to the NFL through their parent companies (ESPN/ABC, CBS, Fox)?

Instead, everyone latches onto the “Terrible Towel” story from a couple weeks back. A story, only allowed to breath because of the oxygen Goodell has been pumping. The idea that there should have been some kind of repercussions for that towel stomp is ludicrous. Unfortunately so are many of the above instances that were fined.

The more these fines become an accepted part of the game, the easier it is to equate them with real transgressions. Within the AP report on the Ellis snowball incident, the penultimate paragraph reads: “It's the latest troublesome incident involving Ellis, who was arrested for speeding and marijuana possession last month and could face a suspension next season under the league's substance-abuse policy.”

It’s legitimate on the AP’s part to group them together, because now they’ve both been defined the same way, that is, “wrong.” It’s unfair to Ellis that Goodell has re-written the dictionary.

Unfortunately this slow negative build-up – change of game, change of culture, change of reputations – will likely go unchecked. It’ll only be noticed once something happens on the national stage – a playoff game for example, or imagine the Super Bowl! We'll giddily laugh when the Super Bowl is tainted by a game changing penalty for "tackling with full body weight."

-Agent Easy


  1. I read this article awhile ago and enjoyed it immensely. as you know, it accords with my thoughts, particularly with regard to speaking out. that's where the most unfathomable fines occur, IMO. at least ridiculous player protection calls are still in the name of something good (safety). i'm really not sure what speaking out fines are in the name of. sportsmanship? no, you can question a call and still be a fine sport (and in any case, bad sports are part of the fun).

  2. agreed. the celebration are really under an umbrella with speaking out. Let em talk let em celebrate.

    It really is frustrating to think about. The more i dug into this piece, the more astonishing the depth of the fine policy was.

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