Goodell Wants Rule on Free Agent Tampering to Be Enforced
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 14, 2008; Page E07
In a proposal to crack down on cheating, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wants the league's competition committee to look not only at the large infractions but the comparatively minor violations as well.
One mostly overlooked aspect of Goodell's directives to the committee, sent in a two-page memo last week, is a passage in which he instructs committee members to review all of the league's competitive rules, including those that prohibit contact between teams and players under contract to other clubs.
Many in the league believe that rule, part of the NFL's anti-tampering provisions, is almost universally ignored in the weeks leading up to the annual opening of the free agent market -- when, they say, agents routinely line up prospective deals for their clients with new teams. It is generally viewed, it appears, as a no-harm, no-foul arrangement. But Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, the co-chairman of the competition committee, said this week that the issue very well could be addressed as part of Goodell's ordered crackdown.
"I don't know that it's viewed as a problem" by many within the league, McKay said in a telephone interview. "But that doesn't mean we should leave the rule as it is. You don't want to have a rule that is not enforced. You want a rule that can be and is enforced."
Under anti-tampering rules, a player eligible for free agency is supposed to negotiate only with his most recent team until the opening of the free agent market, when he is permitted to begin negotiating with any team. But in practice, said several agents and front-office executives from NFL teams who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they didn't want to implicate themselves or their clients, many agents go to the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis before the opening of free agency to begin negotiating with new teams on behalf of clients eligible for free agency. Those deals cannot become official until the opening of the free agent market and sometimes fall through, according to the agents and executives, but many translate into signed contracts.
By unofficial count, 32 NFL players agreed to or signed contracts with teams on Feb. 29, the opening day of free agency this year. Last year, that unofficial count was 24 players.
"It's just how business is done by much of the league, or most of the league," one agent said. "No one really seems to object."
Goodell apparently does.
"I also believe that the Committee should do a thorough review of our competitive rules and policies to ensure that they are current, appropriate, and well-understood by all clubs," the commissioner wrote in his memo to the competition committee. "As possible examples, the Committee may want to consider revising the Anti-Tampering Policy, or the crowd noise rules, both of which have been the subject of discussion in recent years."
An executive from one team said a possible solution would be to create a window of a week or two before free agency in which a player could negotiate with all teams. But an executive from another team said, "No matter where you put the date, there are going to be some people who try to get the jump before everyone else."
McKay declined to provide specifics about what the competition committee might propose.
"At this point, I'll leave it to you to speculate what those changes might be," McKay said.
The tampering rules also cover contact between teams and coaches under contract to other clubs. The issue is just one of the smaller items addressed in Goodell's memo. Goodell also wrote that the league might have teams make "greater use of neutral physician exams" when it comes to decisions about placing players on the season-ending injured reserve list. He wrote that the committee "may wish to consider how the 'equity rule' will apply to cases in which a team loses the use of its communication systems during a game."
Under current rules, a team is not required to shut down its coach-to-quarterback communication system during a game just because the opponent's system is malfunctioning; it only is required to shut down all its communication systems if all its opponent's systems, including those from the press box to the sideline, are not operational. That has produced occasional accusations about a visiting team's coach-to-quarterback system being jammed or otherwise sabotaged during games for competitive gain. Goodell seems to be suggesting that the rule perhaps should be changed so that when one team loses its coach-to-quarterback system, the opponent must shut its system down as well.
Most of the attention generated by Goodell's memo has stemmed from his proposals to address the major issues connected to the New England Patriots being punished for illegally videotaping the play signals of New York Jets coaches in the opening game of the 2007 season. In the memo, Goodell proposed changes that include the continuation of a program of unannounced inspections of locker rooms, stadium press boxes and in-game communication equipment; a lowering of the standard necessary for the commissioner to impose penalties; and a requirement that teams report all violations and submit annual signed certifications that they complied with the rules and reported all infractions.
Some of Goodell's measures, such as his endorsement of a previous proposal to connect one defensive player per team to a coach on the sideline via a wireless communication device during games, require approval of three-fourths of the league's owners. Others perhaps could be enacted by Goodell without approval, and it is expected that there would be little or no opposition to any measures that Goodell deems necessary to protect the integrity of the sport.
"Certainly the commissioner's wishes carry a lot of weight," New York Giants co-owner John Mara, a member of the competition committee, said last week.
But Goodell is seeking input.
"He is just asking us to look at ways we can improve the game and how we might be able to better enforce our rules," said Mara, whose team beat the previously undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Competition committee members began what's scheduled to be a weeklong set of meetings Wednesday in Naples, Fla., and McKay said the committee will devote "as many hours as it takes" to emerge with a set of recommendations for owners, who will meet beginning March 30 in Palm Beach, Fla., at the annual league meeting. McKay said that the competition committee should have enough time to address the smaller issues raised by Goodell as well as the larger ones.
"We address these issues every year in our surveys to the teams," McKay said. "We review a lot of these items. I think it would be something we could address at the league meeting."