Integrity looms large at owners meetings

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- As the NFL launches its annual owners meetings today at a plush resort, applying spit and polish to its image and protecting the integrity of the game headline the agenda. There's also the backdrop of financial strife and labor issues as several owners are unhappy with the collective bargaining agreement and are considering opting out of the current deal in November.

Primarily, though, the NFL is emphasizing ethical issues this week at The Breakers.

After the New England Patriots' Spygate and a recent tampering case involving the San Francisco 49ers, law-and-order NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is looking for reform.

"We are determined to make sure our game is clean and competitively fair," said Ray Anderson, the NFL's vice president of football operations. "The main thing is accountability from top to bottom in protecting the integrity and maintaining accountability with our fans."

Proposals for a stricter code of conduct and adding more technology to the game are up for voting.

The league's competition committee is confident that owners will pass a rule allowing one defensive player to have signals transmitted to his helmet through a radio device as quarterbacks have been able to for years. It's a measure that would eliminate the illegal videotaping that Patriots coach Bill Belichick was punished for last season.

Spygate, which caused Belichick to be fined $500,000 as the team lost a first-round draft pick and was fined $250,000, has caused a strong reaction.

"I think the question has been raised because of all the focus that went on with that incident," said Rich McKay, co-chairman of the competition committee. "You have to make fans assured you are paying attention to the issues and are directing as much energy as you can. We need to make sure people are comfortable that this was an isolated incident that's behind us."

The radio proposal, which will now include having a second defensive player equipped with the helmet device that isn't on the field at the same time, was rejected a year ago in a close vote.

"I do believe the time has come," McKay said.

Goodell wants to strengthen enforcement procedures, including a whistleblower provision that would protect those who report illegal activity. He also wants teams to self-police and sign an annual compliance pledge.

Anderson said that the league wants to use the standard of proof of civil cases, not the proof beyond a reasonable doubt utilized in criminal proceedings.

The league is considering enacting a five to seven-day dead period prior to free agency where agents and teams could legally discuss free agents and reach verbal agreements.

Although no signings or contact with players would be allowed, it could cut back on the widespread illegal tampering.BR>
Last week, the 49ers forfeited their fifth-round pick for tampering with Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs.

"If you create this dead period, there's nobody that's gaining any advantage by any early contact," McKay said. "If this rule were to pass, it would be vigorously enforced and prohibited."

As a former agent, Anderson acknowledged that discussions between teams and player representatives have been extremely prevalent.

"My experience was this moratorium makes sense because there was quite a bit of activity in the agent community, which frankly means they had to get some cooperation on the other tend to accomplish those negotiations," Anderson said. "So, this is a very timely and necessary measure given my history as an agent."

Among the other proposals on the docket:

Prohibiting players from having hair below the name tag on their jerseys. Basically, it would be called the Troy Polamalu rule after the long-haired Pittsburgh Steelers safety. The NFL wouldn't make players cut their hair, but would require them to tuck their hair into their helmets.

Changing the rule on playoff seeding to try to avoid teams that have already clinched seeding from benching starters for late-season games. Division title winners would receive automatic qualifications with the two top division winners with the best records receiving first-round byes.

A wild-card team could receive a home game in the opening round if it has a superior record to a division winner.

Adopting the college game's coin-toss option that allows teams to defer receiving the kickoff until the second half.

Abolishing the forceout rule on receptions unless the receiver was carried out of bounds.

Eliminating the five-yard incidental facemask penalty. Only serious twisting, turning or pulling the facemask would draw a 15-yard penalty.

Adding instant replay to include field-goal attempts.

This rule is being proposed following the Baltimore Ravens' controversial overtime loss last season to the Cleveland Browns where kicker Phil Dawson's game-tying 51-yard kick hit the crossbar and ricocheted off the support stanchion and bounced back onto the field.

The kick was initially ruled no good, but was overturned following a lengthy discussion that included referee Pete Morelli being told by officials in the booth that it wasn't a reviewable play.

Owners will also consider expanding roster sizes.

Any proposal needs 24 out of 32 owners' votes to be approved.

"If there are concerns, we're not going to pretend they don't exist," Anderson said. "We don't deny that we've got issues to deal with, so we go after them."

NOTE: Compensatory draft choices will be awarded this week, and the Ravens are expected to potentially receive a third-round draft pick as compensation for linebacker Adalius Thomas signing with the Patriots last year.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.


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