Posted: Friday May 4, 2012 12:27PM ; Updated: Friday May 4, 2012 1:05PM
Don Banks
Don Banks>INSIDE THE NFL

New issue, same misguided fight between league and union

Story Highlights

The peace between league and union that came with the new CBA didn't last long

In fighting for suspended players, NFLPA is missing big picture of player safety

Both sides need to end the debate, pursue inevitable change for better together

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DeMaurice Smith and Roger Goodell
Remember this moment? Peace between the league and players union didn't last long before lines in the sand were drawn again.
Evan Habeeb-US PRESSWIRE

At the very least, Junior Seau's shocking suicide this week raises the stakes all the more when it comes to what might be on the line in the controversial and much-debated effort to increase player safety in the NFL. We don't know for sure yet if the league's two biggest headlines in recent days were connected on any level, and if Seau's long and distinguished football career led to the kind of brain injury that contributed to him taking his own life, but there is ample reason -- and far too much recent history -- to support suspicion on that front.

Such significance makes the juxtaposition of the latest NFL versus players union battle all the more disgusting and distasteful to watch unfold. I don't know if you've noticed, but it's as if last year's labor war never really ended. In some ways, it feels like we're right back in the stagnant spring and summer of 2011, with the contentiousness this time spawned by the suspensions handed down to four current or ex-New Orleans Saints players by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for their roles in the team's ugly bounty program scandal.

The league says there's a mountain of evidence to support the penalties and they've shared it with the union, and the union says they've seen no evidence, and the judgments are inherently unfair. Two wildly contrasting sides to the story. Two different languages being spoken. Two different versions of reality being offered up, with two "independent'' legal experts being trotted out Thursday to buttress their arguments. It's all so very familiar.

Let's step away from the facts of the league's investigation that are in such hot dispute for just a moment to restate the obvious: The league and its players may have that much-celebrated CBA in place, but that's about all they're in agreement over these days. If you thought the matter of increased player safety would be a uniting cause, one that bred commonality between the NFL and NFLPA, think again. You probably assumed optimistically that HGH testing would be instituted quickly and smoothly as well. After all, it's in the new CBA.

There may be merit to each side of the argument in regards to the Saints player suspensions. Room for some honest debate. But it's hard at this point to not see the issue as having merely become just another proxy war for last year's labor fight, with both sides viewing the issue from polar opposite vantage points, and the rhetoric and inability to agree on any facet of player penalties growing by the day.

Where's Robert Kraft and Jeff Saturday when you need them now? How about hugging this one out, rather than muskets at 40 paces and the threat of litigation?

Instead, it's Groundhog Day, and the league and the union are back to trench warfare, battling in the court of public opinion to get their viewpoint heard. If there ever was a honeymoon between the two sides, it lasted about as long as that settlement announcement news conference on the sidewalk in D.C. last July. After that photo op, it was time to restart the game and watch the money roll back in, and return to the default setting of disagreement and instinctive mistrust.

It's not only beyond tiresome, but it's the wrong issue at the wrong time to fight about. Setting aside the Saints saga, which in time will pass, the league and its players need to be on the same page regarding heightened player safety because it's too vitally important an issue to bungle. Back away from the trees and see the forest and the big picture here, football folks. Whether you like it or not, the Saints bounty scandal represents a pivot point of sorts in the game's history, a line of delineation that marks when player safety truly rose to a front-burner issue in the NFL, and when the league started to truly grapple with how to better protect the men who play this violent game.

It's not going to be a perfect path to that goal, and there will be missteps along the way. Institutional change of this level is never easy, but it's time for that change to come. Making the game safer is a worthy objective to be pursued, it's long overdue, and a real paradigm shift in the game's culture is already underway and won't be blunted. All of which are reasons why the players union needs to embrace every aspect of these changes and support them, even if it makes the NFLPA momentarily uncomfortable to not fight tooth and nail for the four players in New Orleans who have been deemed to deserve suspensions for their role in the bounty program.

I understand that a union's very existence is to fight for its members, so on the surface, naturally it makes sense to appeal on behalf of Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita. But those aren't the NFLPA's only constituents. The union also represents every current player who might have been illegally targeted for injury in the past, or who might have been in the future had the Saints scandal never come to light. Those members, which make up the union's vast majority, will benefit from a safer, cleaner game, and their interests must outweigh those of the four Saints players who are being held accountable.

Some current and former players have decried the league's efforts to make the NFL safer, saying it can't be done without ruining the game. But many others have lauded it, including Super Bowl-winning Giants quarterback Eli Manning just this week. He's a player union member, too, and he deserves to have his voice heard by the NFLPA. Manning came out in favor of the league's player suspensions because he believes the punishment fit the crimes, and the good that came out of the message sent by those penalties will outweigh the hardships that Vilma and Co. experience.

The majority of fans and NFL players, I think, believe the Saints scandal represents a good development for the future health of football players, and see it as more than just a case of needless over-reach or over-reaction.

Saints fans will never agree with much of this, because for the most part, football fans are blindly loyal to their team, right or wrong, and that's not changing. New Orleans feels it has been unfairly targeted and singled out, and to many that's understandable. But even if the truth winds up being that the Saints took a larger bullet than they deserved, or too much has been made of this particular story, there's a much bigger issue at stake here, and it's far more important than the specific facts or headline sizzle of this story. The cause of increased player safety is on the right side of history in this story, and anyone who lines up on the other side -- even momentarily -- is doing a small part to delay real change from taking place.

At the moment, the cause of change in the NFL is being held hostage to some degree by the debate regarding the evidence gathered against the Saints in the league's bounty program investigation, and the fairness of the suspensions levied against the four defensive players. The stalemate is serving to obscure the larger issue of player safety, and breeding a new round of antipathy between the league office and union leadership.

To the NFL I would say: Stop telling us about the mountain of "multiple and independent first-hand accounts and corroborating documentation'' that proves the evidence against the accused players and find a way to show us some of it. The fans, media and the rest of the league want to hear it, want to see it and want to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the NFL's investigation has this story completely correct. Take this saga out of the realm of "Trust us, we have the evidence,'' and prove it to the point where even the union can't refute it.

The league says Hargrove signed a declaration that acknowledged the existence of the Saints illegal bounty program, his participation in it, and his being told to lie to cover it up in 2010. Can't that document be used to knock down the union's claims that it has seen no evidence proving players participated? Most football fans have a hard time believing Roger Goodell would suspend four players, one for an entire season, just for the fun of it, without evidence. But it's time to give the public and the media more information and evidence than we've gotten so far, in order to get past the he-said, she-said element to this story.

In the end, I think the league is coming from the right place in their response to the Saints scandal. The NFL obviously has its own reasons to get its ducks in a row in regards to player safety, with hundreds of ex-players in the process of suing the league over concussion/brain trauma-related injuries. But clearly something was amiss in New Orleans. We've heard the Gregg Williams tape, we've seen the acknowledgments of responsibility from him, head coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant head coach Joe Vitt. When you add in Hargrove's signed declaration, it strains credulity to think that all Saints players are innocent of all wrongdoing in this saga.

Yet that's basically the union's position so far, that Saints management was totally at fault, and the Saints players were totally victims. The NFL is just being overzealous, connecting too many dots, and breathing too much meaning into what it found in New Orleans. At least in terms of any pay-to-injure charges against players. Oh, and see you in federal court.

The shame of it all is that player safety is too critical an issue to reduce to the players versus the league template. There can't be two versions of reality that conflict this wildly, and we can't re-fight the NFL labor war of 2011 over something that has this many potential losers. The league and its players need to be side by side on this one, even if both sides know there is no perfectly fair way to rule in the Saints bounty program scandal.

In this case at least, isn't it better if the league over-reacted rather than under-reacted? Which would prove more dangerous? Erring on the side of player safety, or sweeping the story under the rug and pretending it's business as usual? Take another look at recent headlines and the answer should be obvious.

 
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