By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Steelers are in favor of the NFL's proposed new get-tough policy on criminal players, provided it includes protections for the teams.
If a bonus baby is to be barred from playing because of repeated criminal activity, the Steelers would like to see the clubs be able to recoup their up-front investment in him.
"I think if teams are given the tools that I think they need to impose discipline, that would help," said Steelers president Art Rooney. "In this last collective bargaining agreement, we gave up some things that, let's say, were helpful in terms of enforcing discipline."
Before the new CBA was reached last year, teams were able to force players to return parts of various bonuses if the players were found to violate the code of conduct in their contracts.
"That's limited now in this new agreement," Rooney said. "Only the signing bonus is something you can go after for a player who commits a serious conduct matter."
Rooney and the rest of the NFL will learn what commissioner Roger Goodell proposes as a new conduct policy when they gather for the annual spring meetings in Phoenix starting Sunday. Goodell plans to present his tougher policy Tuesday, one that has often been referred to as "three strikes and you're out."
Goodell has met with the NFL Players Association and others to work on the tougher policy, which does not need a vote of the owners; the commissioner can implement a new code of conduct at his discretion.
"I think the players were very interested, as was the union, in pursuing a modification to our current policy," said Rich McKay, chairman of the competition committee. "I think we're all concerned with the things that go on off the field and how the actions of a few may affect the many."
NFL players and other professional athletes have gotten into trouble with the law before, but it has come to a head because of more high-profile cases lately that prompted magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Webs sites such as Pro Football Talk to run standings for teams that assign points for various criminal behavior.
Rooney blamed it in part on the Cincinnati Bengals, who have had nine players arrested in a nine-month period.
"I think there has been an increase in the number of incidents -- not dramatic, but I also think the Bengals situation, where they've had multiple problems with multiple players, has raised it to a level that has drawn a lot of attention to the Bengals and the situation in general," Rooney said."The league wants to head it off before it gets any more serious.
"I don't think dramatic change [is needed] but I think the league wants to make sure we're in front of this and don't go down to where we're looking at something before it's too late."
Speculation on possible punishments are suspensions of players, including a lifetime ban, and fines and losses of draft choices for their teams.
"I think if teams are held accountable, there also should be a way to hold players accountable," Rooney said. "So if there's a package with various components that strengthen ... conduct issues, I think we would be supportive of it."
The conduct policy is one of two major issues Rooney identified on the docket at the league meetings. The other is revenue sharing.
The new CBA includes a provision for revenue sharing that takes money from the top revenue teams and distributes it to those in the second half of revenue producers. However, it is so small that the small-market teams are worried they soon will be losing money while the rich teams get richer.
For example, each team's revenue from television used to cover its player costs each year. That no longer is the case. Player costs in 2007 -- over and above the salary cap because they include benefits such as pensions and health -- are $130.6 million. TV revenue is $90 million per team, leaving a shortfall of $40 million that many small-market teams cannot cover with their local income.
The Steelers are near the middle of the NFL pack in revenue production.
"It's an ongoing issue that we need a more permanent solution to than what we came up with in this last CBA," Rooney said. "It's an imbalance of revenue. You look league-wide, revenue is growing and it's great. But you look on a club-by-club basis, the disparity is growing and the high-revenue teams pulling away from the low-revenue teams."
Among other notable proposals on the agenda:
Make instant replay a permanent rule (it would expire in two more years if not extended or made permanent), and adjust it to include reviews of various penalties.
Move the overtime kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35 to make it more equitable for the team that loses the coin flip.
Create a 5-yard penalty for spiking the ball on the field of play, other than after a touchdown.
Revise the injury reporting system that now includes various designations of "probable, questionable, doubtful and out."
Experiment in the preseason with moving the location of the umpire from the defense to behind the offense for safety reasons.
Allow one player on defense to be designated as eligible to receive radio-helmet instructions the way a quarterback does now.
Allow a second interview for head coaching candidates whose team advances to the Super Bowl.
Have separate pass interference penalties: A "major" that consists of the current rule, putting the ball where the penalty occurred, and a "minor" one that would reflect the college rule of a 15-yard penalty. The decisions on which would be up to the officials.
Increase the game day roster from 45 to 47