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Trouble-prone NFL players are on their own

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



There’s no evidence that suggests NFL players are about to go on the kind of crime spree not seen since Pacman Jones terrorized the land, but . . .

. . . you might want to lock your doors, just in case.

I don’t mean to be a fear monger, but one of the small details in the NFL lockout is that the league doesn’t have disciplinary power over the players while the labor strife continues.

That means the image of law-and-order commissioner Roger Goodell menacingly slapping a paddle against his palm won’t be there to guide players’ consciences. That means . . . chaos on the streets?

Fear not. The police and the courts still have the ultimate authority, and if one of your local heroes finds himself in the standard nightclub shootout, the legal structure should work perfectly well.

But what has gotten players’ attention in recent years has been the very real threat that Goodell will suspend them and hurt them where it hurts the most: their wallets. They’ve seen him suspend Jones, Tank Johnson, Michael Vick and others for criminal acts off the field. Playing for pay is the reason for living for many NFL players.

Goodell’s hard-line approach has acted as a deterrent. But with that hard line erased for the time being, what happens now? On Saturday, Vikings cornerback Chris Cook was accused of brandishing a firearm during an argument with a neighbor. Hey, it’s the NFL. It happens, OK? It’s the sort of incident that sets off a predictable chain of events: The player says he has been wronged, the team says it’s gathering facts and Goodell starts rubbing his hands together in anticipation of a disciplinary hearing.

But there’s nothing the league can do to Cook now or when the sides reach a labor agreement. The Vikings can cut him when the lockout ends, but they’ll only do that if they decide he’s not a good-enough player. It will have nothing to do with guilt or innocence. He started five games as a rookie last season. Among NFL teams, that’s considered a good reason for leniency.

The New York Times reported Monday that as long as there’s no collective-bargaining agreement, the NFL can’t discipline players for off-field transgressions or drug-test them.

Worst-case scenarios

If you’re picturing Ben Roethlisberger suddenly packing for college spring break in Fort Lauderdale, I am, too.

If you’re picturing a string of ’roid-rage-induced fights in grocery stores and at playgroups, I am, too.

“I guess if players know they’re not going to be tested, they’re more likely to do something wrong than not,’’ former Cowboys executive Gil Brandt told the Times.

Anything else? Any other reason to believe the lockout is tearing apart the very fabric of American life? Why, yes, there is, as a matter of fact. Now that the NFL players union has decertified, it has no control over agents. Agents can attempt to steal clients from other agents without sanctions from the union hanging over their heads.

The teacher has left the room, folks, and the students are loading up on spitballs.

The NFL and the union deserve whatever bad things happen to them during the lockout. Arguing about how to split up $9 billion in revenues is not flattering in any light.

What’s interesting is the way both sides gave the impression the last few weeks of working hard to reach a deal. They seemed to be acting like adults. Talking. Discussing solutions. Extending deadlines. At least pretending to give and take.

But now that the lockout is in effect, the masks have dropped and the sense of collegiality has vanished. The union is encouraging top rookies not to attend the televised first round of next month’s draft, according to ESPN.com. That way, when Goodell announces each team’s top pick, he won’t have a player’s hand to shake at the podium.

It’s the kind of small, petty thing upon which this great country was built.

Goodell says he’ll take an annual salary of $1 as long as the lockout continues, but it doesn’t mean much. He has made a lot of money in his five years as commissioner. He’s not going to feel the pain of losing his $10 million-a-year salary any time soon.

Plenty of posturing

If anything’s certain, it’s that the NFL won’t budge until it has to. Everything you’re seeing now and will see in the weeks ahead has to do with posturing. The league has been planning for a lockout for several years. The value of the average NFL franchise increased 360 percent from 1998 to 2008, according to a study requested by the union.

Most of the players are rich, too.

The whole thing is preposterous, of course, as is the daily tug-of-war to try to capture public sympathy. Good luck with that. Fans are too busy barricading themselves.



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