Perhaps the most important thing about Super Bowl week beyond the game itself from a media perspective is the annual meeting of a number of the best and the brightest in our industry as well as promised access to many of the game's movers and shakers. Specifically, we're guaranteed a chance to meet with and query DeMaurice Smith and members of the NFL Players Association executive board and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
However, on the road to Indianapolis this year, knowing the lockout was well in our rearview mirror and that another nine years of labor peace after this season are at hand, I wondered just what of interest might come from those sessions? I really waffled as the week began whether I'd even bother visiting with the union folks and the commish.
The NFLPA holds its annual press conference the Thursday afternoon of Super Bowl week, and the commissioner gives what has come to be known as his State of the League presser every year on Friday at 11:30 a.m. A more recent addition has been a private sit-down with Smith and members of the Pro Football Writers of America — strictly ink-stained wretches like me, no electronic folks — to go off the record. No cameras, no recorders and no notes allowed. It was intended for all of us to let our hair down, get to know each other better and be better informed.
I was glad I decided to go and see Smith on Wednesday. It was a very small group, perhaps 30 of us at most, almost intimate. He was much more relaxed than a year ago for obvious reasons, far less combative and a bit more engaged. And there are still serious issues to discuss, which we did. That's all I can tell you about Wednesday. It was completely off the record, no recorders, no notes, no …
Of course the Thursday NFLPA press conference is fair game for all and there are hot-button issues facing the NFLPA today, including HGH testing, concussion issues and the medical well-being of players, the possibility of an 18-game schedule and there are going to be a lot more debates over player benefits, specifically the gap between what goes to players who retired prior to the free-agency era (1993) and those who have played since.
The focus at the moment is on the HGH testing, which the league claimed months ago had been agreed to and was ready to start. The players' view is a bit different. Smith acknowledges the new CBA includes an agreement to collectively bargain HGH testing, but insists the form and governance has to be agreed upon and the two sides have yet to agree.
At issue is the test itself and who will administer it and adjudicate disputes. The overwhelming majority of players object to the use of needles and having to give blood, but the union admits it's the only way currently to test for HGH and so the players are going to have to submit. But the union is not ready to submit to the testing being done by WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, which oversees Olympic testing because of serious concerns over how WADA measures HGH levels and determines how much is naturally produced in the body as opposed to ingested or injected, and because WADA allows for no challenges of any kind to its results until after severe penalties have already been administered. It sounds like a legitimate gripe to me, but the league/owners say there's nothing wrong with WADA or how they test and that's the process they want to use.
Smith can be pompous, arrogant and belligerent, but I'm convinced he is a "true believer," or at least someone who wears the mantle well. That said, he insisted for almost two years that there would be no financial give-backs from the players in a new CBA unless the owners opened their books to show the need because short of that, it just wasn't fair to even ask. Of course, the books were never opened and the players made substantial concessions and give-backs on revenue, with its leaders now telling us the "open the books" ploy was just a necessary strategy and that they won because it significantly limited the amount they eventually did give back. I don't buy that, but perhaps you do, as clearly scoring or judging the lockout and new CBA is in the eye of the beholder.
But what is clear is there's no such fallback position for Smith on the HGH issue. Either the owners come up with someone other than WADA that is agreeable to the players to do the testing or WADA makes significant changes in the way it conducts, measures and enforces its tests or NFL players will not be tested for Human Growth Hormones, in spite of the fact that Smith agrees it is in the best interest of the game and therefore the players.
I can't really speak to the debate over benefits among current players and pre-'93 retirees because there are so many details not available to anyone but the beneficiaries, and every benefit plan in every and any industry has differences in who gets what and how its administered. In most plans, more recent beneficiaries get more than older ones because more is generated as the plan matures. It is possible that today's players have failed in their obligation to treat older players fairly in how the bounty is divvied up, but much like the players' complaint in last year's lockout, without access to the books, it's just not up to me to say.
There is one point Smith focused on that I totally support. He talked about the focus of his union over the foreseeable future being the health, safety and well-being of its players rather than their bank accounts. Few have railed longer or more loudly over recent changes in the rules of the game aimed at promoting player safety than I have. That is because I believe they are ambiguous, overly subjective and impossible to enforce fairly without completely changing the game and may make it more dangerous rather than safer. But there can be no argument players need better medical care aimed at protecting their futures.
You and I go to the doctor either to be made well or to avoid any potential danger or damage of any kind by being as proactive and safe as possible. NFL players go to the doctor to be made ready to play on Sunday, often at great risk to their long-range well-being and at times even facing immediate danger so as not to miss a game. What's wrong with that picture?
From where I sit, the players got hammered by the owners in the new CBA, but what's done is done and both sides are still going to get filthy rich. But rather than being ready for a nine-year sabbatical, I'd say it's time the NFLPA rolled up its sleeves and really got busy with a far more important issue. Medical science is showing us more each day, its members are more at risk than they've ever been, and the dangers they face are far more serious and far more real. I am not indicting the doctors overseeing player care. Quite the opposite, I'm sure most of them do outstanding work six days a week. But I do believe every one of them needs to take a step back and ask themselves if their Sunday mantra of "patch 'em up and get 'em out there" is consistent with the most basic tenet of their cannon of ethics which is first, last and always, "Do no harm"?