Commentary: Teams go fine-happy

There seems to be a rash of team-issued fines being handed down in the past month. Are the owners in this together against the players, or are these necessary steps against problem players?

Tuesday's announcement that the Browns have suspended tight end Kellen Winslow a game without pay is putting the league under a microscope and causing some to wonder if there is some sort of collusion among owners to draw their own line in the sand concerning player conduct.

In just the last three weeks, three of the game's bigger offensive stars – Winslow, Larry Johnson of the Chiefs and Plaxico Burress – have all been suspended a game without pay by their teams. In the case of Burress, he claimed to have been needed for a family emergency that caused him to miss a team meeting. In the case of Johnson, it was a similar charge levied by the team, but, heading into Week 8, word out of Kansas City is that, if the NFL doesn't take a stand on the reports of a fourth incident involving violent behavior toward women in five years, the Chiefs will de-activate him Sunday.

In the case of Winslow, he has been suspended without pay for this week as the result of exercising his right to free speech. He didn't break the law. He didn't get into a fight with a teammate. All he did was say he doesn't feel the organization is supportive of him, as he became yet another victim of staph infections that seem to run rampant in Cleveland.

There was a time not too long ago in which player conduct was swept under the rug by organizations. It was an "us versus them" mentality, where organizations hoped that the league would opt not to put sanctions down on their players – much less critical starters like L.J., Burress and Winslow. It would appear now that the owners themselves are taking the lead in these matters and it begs the question, "Why now?"

Burress was unapologetic when the Giants made him sit out a week, standing by his story and saying that he would do the same over again if his family needed him. Johnson was suspended by the team for last week's game and it appears as though unless the league steps in and brings the hammer down on Johnson, the Chiefs will simply impose an in-house penalty of sitting him down.

Winslow is the one that could end up being the test case for whether the owners are making some sort of power play with the players. Fines are way up across the board in the league, with players now being fined on plays in which there weren't even penalty flags thrown. The league has also made owners responsible if they have more than one player that faces a suspension during the year. The Cowboys, for example, are paying more than $20,000 a week for as long as Pacman Jones is suspended under this policy. Is that why teams are taking the lead in handing out punishment?

It's hard to say because, by the nature of collusion, if owners have met to discuss player conduct and decided collectively to make examples of players, they won't just come out and say so in a public forum. However, the rash of in-house suspensions just continues to grow and goes against most of the basic rules of football.

The litmus test for whether there may or may not be collusion is the tried-and-true belief that NFL teams try to put their best foot forward in all instances. You don't see teams intentionally tanking games late in the season to get a higher draft pick. The year before the 49ers used the first overall pick to take Alex Smith, they played the Houston Texans late in the season. If the Texans had tanked that game, they would have finished with the first pick in the draft. Instead, Houston won and their first-round pick dropped all the way to No. 5. The thinking was that you do everything you can in every game to put your best team on the field and give your maximum effort. Are the Giants a better team without Burress? Are the lowly Chiefs better without their only offensive weapon? Are the Browns better off with Winslow on the sidelines? The answer to all of those questions is "no."

The Winslow saga will be an interesting one to follow. With Gene Upshaw no longer around to stir the pot with ownership over handing down fines and suspensions, it would seem that owners are taking their newfound power over players to extremes. The Chiefs have already suspended Johnson for a game, but will add more punishment if the league doesn't step in and play "bad cop." The same is true in relation to Winslow, who violated no team or league rules. He was hospitalized with what was simply termed "an illness" – no further explanation was given. When Winslow was finally released from the hospital and returned to the team, he made the comment that he doesn't feel like a member of the team and, at times, feels like "a piece of meat" with the organization. Inappropriate? Yes. Worthy of the loss of one game check? That's debatable.

As these fines and suspensions continue to pile up, one has to wonder whether these are just coincidence or if there is some kind of behind-the-scenes agenda being pushed for organizations to police themselves and make examples of players – even if they are star players the teams can ill-afford to sit for a week. If there has been such an agenda, almost by definition you have collusion. With the owners opting out of the current collective bargaining agreement, this may become a sticking point in future negotiations and potentially the issue that results in players drawing a line in the sand and digging in their heels.


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