Conduct Policy to Extend to Rookie Deals?

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wasted little time instituting a new get-tough policy on player conduct and suspending its obvious offenders. Part of life in the NFL in 2007, as owners and agents start negotiating the huge contracts for the top rookies, is a personal conduct policy -- and the ability to recoup bonus money from violators. Is it going to be the next big thing in negotiations?

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has wasted little time in exerting his authority. His year-long suspension of Pac Man Jones, eight-game suspension of Chris Henry and Tank Johnson and his threatened course of action with Michael Vick concerning dog-fighting allegations have sent a clear message to players that bad behavior won't be tolerated by his regime.

While many in the league, including some of the muckety-mucks in the players association, have applauded this get-tough stance, it has some wondering how far the policy can be taken. To be a player in the NFL is being viewed as a privilege and not a right and the commish has put his foot down on those he views as the most egregious offenders to his personal conduct policy. The message has been sent loud and clear that if a player gets into serious trouble with legal issues that the hammer will come down. But is it possible to go one step further?

In a sad twist of irony, the Bengals – who have led the league in arrests and convictions over the last couple of years – were one of the first teams that tried to impose a personal conduct policy into player contracts. It was one of the deal-breakers in keeping Corey Dillon, because he refused to accept it as a provision of a potential contract extension years before most football fans had ever heard of Goodell.

The Bengals administrative position was simple – if you violate your contract and take part in activities that jeopardize your availability to the team, the team can go after some or all of the money you were paid as part of a signing bonus. Because the stance taken by the Bengals was rare at the time, it was just another reason for free agents to say "no" when it came to signing a deal to come to Cincinnati. But it was a stance the team maintained – saying it didn't want players that would potentially disgrace the organization.

In hindsight, the irony of those words are actually rather comical, considering that the Bengals have had almost 20 different players involved in arrests and/or investigations over the last two years. But, it raises an interesting point. Just as the signing bonus has become a staple of most long-term contract signings, will language start being inserted that protects the team in the event of a player getting in trouble with the law or the league?

The Vikings are no strangers to such a provision. When the team gave Koren Robinson a long-term deal, much of the signing bonus money was deferred and tied into him not getting into any more alcohol-related trouble. He didn't even last through the preseason before the infamous car chase to Mankato made national news and the Vikings the disgraceful talk of the NFL. K-Rob essentially voided his contract and, because of its language, the Vikings were out very little of the millions of dollars they would have paid out in bonus money.

The Vikings have gone to great pains to bring in players they believe are of high character and won't be a problem on or off the field. The players association seems to back a tough conduct policy as well. So who does that leave? The players themselves and their agents. Will agents who get a percentage of a players earnings have to pay back their cut in the event contract language includes a "get-back" clause for teams if a player doesn't live up to his end of the bargain? Probably, which is why you will see more agents trying to shoot down any overtures of including such personal conduct language from contracts.

Its time may be coming and the battle may be a bloody one. With the league putting in tough conduct standards, can it be too much of a stretch to think that the owners will want similar provisions put in big-money contracts to protect their organizational behinds? It makes sense from the business side of things and, while it might lead to a few heads-butts in getting rookies signed, that time is likely at hand. Fortunately, the biggest investment the Vikings will make this year will be Adrian Peterson, who gets nothing but glowing reviews. But what about those players with a checkered past? It could lead to contract holdouts. Once somebody blinks, the other deals will fall like dominoes. But who is going to blink first?

TUESDAY NOTES
* From the "What the…?" Department comes this: Fred Smoot was interviewed recently and the subject of the Vikings' Lake Minnetonka boat scandal came up. Smoot maintained that nothing happened on the boat and that the charges were part of a media creation to make the Vikings' highest-paid players look bad. Instead, it was eye-witness accounts of sultry behavior that the story took off and Smoot entered a guilty plea.
* There are rumors that, if Daunte Culpepper can't get a deal worked out with the Jaguars when he's released, he would be interested in going to the Packers – where he could spend this year rehabbing his still-problematic knee and take over for Brett Favre when he finally retires – most likely after this season unless he has a fifth change of heart.

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