NEW YORK — Many NFL players believe they should have a greater voice in handing out fines and suspensions for illegal hits.
With the league recently imposing a $75,000 fine and three more of $50,000 each for such fouls, it is getting expensive for violators. But it's not necessarily the amount of the fines – or the potential for suspensions – that has players upset. It's the process through which only Commissioner Roger Goodell, league football operations chief Ray Anderson, officiating director Carl Johnson and other NFL executives, some of them former players such as Merton Hanks, mete out discipline.
"You've got to make sure that these things are fair, that they're measurable, that you can judge them, that it's not just one person's opinion," said New England Patriots tackle Matt Light, the team's player representative.
All plays are reviewed by the league's officiating and operations offices, meaning many people see and discuss them. The players are interested in making sure some of those people are their peers.
"I do think the issue's screwed up," added Bengals tackle Andrew Whitworth, also a player rep. "They say former players are the ones that review it, but they're also former players who are being paid by the NFL. So a lot of times, I feel if Goodell or some of those guys would sit in on those meetings and hear how it goes, you'd know that it's not a fair conversation."
When asked Monday about Steelers safety Troy Polamalu's suggestion that current players and team officials should be involved in deciding punishments, Goodell said the league has been opposed to it.
"There are league executives involved and there are former players involved," Goodell said in Cincinnati. "I think having active players and active front office executives is something the competition committee has always frowned on."
Goodell emphasized that he's not part of the fines process, which was set up with the players' association. Appeals are heard and decided by Art Shell, a Hall of Fame player with the Raiders, and former NFL coach Ted Cottrell. They are paid jointly by the NFL and NFLPA.
Players often express concern about the appeals system, which they don't find objective, as well as about the hefty fines. Then again, if they are breaking the rules – particularly when player safety is at stake – a strong message needs to be delivered, as the league did last month.
"I just think that to arbitrarily go in and set a fine and say that this is the rule is just not the way that it should be done," Redskins defensive end and player rep Vonnie Holliday said. "It should be more of a democratic approach to things. And for the union to be a part of that, or to go out and get some outside council or someone to be a part of that process, I think it's very important and something that should be looked into."
Light says fines are taken directly out of players' checks before the appeal process has run its course. He finds that strange because if a player violates the drug policy and is fined, that money is not removed until appeals are heard and a final verdict is made.
However, the fine money only is taken from the paycheck if a player does not appeal within 10 days of notification of the fine, or if he or his agent or the NFLPA delays the appeal hearing beyond a specific time.
"You can't take a guy's money before he's been found guilty or had a chance to appeal a decision that's been made," Light said. "There's definitely things we have to work on."
Bills safety George Wilson sees all of these issues intertwined with the negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. The CBA expires in March, and players on a majority of the 32 teams have voted to decertify the union should the owners lock them out.
Wilson suggests that a topic such as health care coverage in a new CBA is tied in with player safety – and discipline – on the field.
"As players, we look at it like, 'OK, if you are going to protect us on the field, you have to protect us off the field as well,'" Wilson said. "So just like you're fighting for our safety on the field you have to fight for our safety off the field. We have health care benefits due to expire in March in the event that we're locked out. So guys are looking at it like how much do you really care about our health and safety in the long run?"
That, however, is for beyond this season, particularly with labor negotiations going slowly. But Wilson has found yet another point on which the union and league disagree.
"I think going into this new CBA it's imperative for the union to feel like they have a voice in the disciplinary process, at least have a voice at the table," he said. "I know that can come in a lot of capacities and aspects, but guys just want to feel like their voices are heard."
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton in Denver, and Sports Writers Howard Ulman in Boston, Joe Kay in Cincinnati and John Wawrow in Buffalo contributed to this story.