[size=18px]Paper trail allowed Eagles to do what Vikings cannot[/size]
Philadelphia was able to suspend T.O. because of its documentation of past offenses, which is not the case in the alleged Love Boat scandal.
Last update November 11, 2005 at 522 PM
The news moved slowly across the ESPN ticker last weekend Philadelphia Eagles suspend wide receiver Terrell Owens four games for conduct detrimental to the team. Minnesotans, snoozing in their Barcaloungers on a lazy weekend, had reason to sit up with a start.
In essence, the Eagles want to withhold Owens' salary as punishment for repeated public criticism of the organization -- among other off-field incidents that fall well below criminal levels. Owens has filed a grievance with the NFL Players Association, but he would lose nearly $765,000 if arbitrator Richard Bloch upholds the decision.
Meanwhile, Minnesotans have been crying out for some kind of discipline in the wake of the Vikings' alleged Oct. 6 sex party on Lake Minnetonka. Team officials are awaiting the completion of a police investigation, but they have insisted that disciplinary measures will be limited significantly by the NFL's collective bargaining agreement with its union.
So what gives? How could the Eagles suspend Owens for giving colorful interviews, fighting (hardly an unusual event in a football locker room) and parking in handicapped spots at Philadelphia's practice facility -- the highlights of the Eagles' reported case against him -- while the Vikings seem relatively powerless in the face of much more serious accusations?
The answer lies in the definition of "conduct detrimental to the team" -- a legal term the CBA leaves largely undefined. Ron Rollins, a longtime Twin Cities labor lawyer, compares it with "just cause," the vague threshold most companies must meet when disciplining or firing union workers.
There is no greater punishment for professional athletes than emptying their wallets. When it comes to team-imposed discipline, the CBA allows for a maximum four-game suspension without pay if the team can prove detrimental conduct. Historically, the term has applied to non-criminal, football-related offenses such as questioning a coach in practice or displaying disruptive behavior during meetings.
NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has jurisdiction over fines and suspensions in criminal situations, according to the CBA. A team attempting to apply a detrimental conduct penalty on top of the league's discipline would face a stiff battle from the players' union, which could argue that the term does not apply.
Like other companies that employ union workers, the Eagles will have to provide documentation of prior offenses to justify their maximum penalty against Owens. Reportedly, they have kept careful paperwork of coach Andy Reid's meetings with Owens since the trouble began last winter -- discussions where Reid spelled out his expectations and the potential consequences if Owens did not change his behavior.
It seems unlikely the Vikings would have had reason to take such detailed prior actions with any of the players aboard the boat cruise. Whether or not criminal charges are filed, the Vikings would have to make a difficult legal argument to prove that any of the players engaged in conduct detrimental to the team while aboard the boat on their night off.
Rollins described that argument as finding "a nexus between off-duty time and working time."
"You must prove that you've got conduct detrimental to the core of what you do as a business," Rollins said. "Which in this case is to take a cooperative group and have them perform at a high level on the field."
In recent NFL history, only a handful of players have been suspended without pay. In some cases, the arbitrator has reduced those suspensions to smaller fines due to a lack of prior violations. Releasing a player would cut off his cash but also impact the salary cap and possibly the team's competitiveness as well.
Many remember the "suspension" of then-Tampa Bay receiver Keyshawn Johnson in 2003. In reality, Johnson was deactivated for the final six games because of differences with Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden. Johnson continued to receive his bi-weekly game checks, and while he was denied the opportunity to reach performance bonuses, similar "discipline" probably won't deter the behavior of many professional athletes.
"Very rarely do you have a guy in a situation where you really have conduct detrimental to the team," said Vikings linebacker Keith Newman, one of the team's union representatives. "In [Owens'] case, it's been an ongoing thing since the offseason. But very rarely are you going to get a guy that has done something during the season that's so far overboard where the team can suspend him for that."
The Vikings certainly could begin a documentation process once the police investigation is completed. Otherwise, their realistic options still appear limited to releasing players or deactivating them with pay. So for now, dim the lights and settle back into your Barcaloungers.
Kevin Seifert Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ [email protected]