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Sportsmanship on table at NFL meetings

| Saturday, March 22, 2014, 10:51 p.m.

Among the hundreds and hundreds of enforcement policies the NFL has enacted, retracted or redacted over the years, there's never been one quite like this.

One that requires players — in fact, all employees of all NFL teams — to respect each other.

Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin are partly why the NFL is ready to act. A sizable increase in taunting penalties, 34 last season compared to nine in 2012, also is a reason. So is the likelihood that an openly gay player, Michael Sam, will be on the playing field in 2014.

As the league meetings begin Sunday in Orlando, the 32 owners will discuss a league-mandated emphasis on cleaning up on-field language, reducing taunting, eliminating racial slurs and intimidating gestures.

Or, as Steelers president Art Rooney II referred to it, bringing “sportsmanship” back into the game.

In particular, and not just because almost every word by every player is captured by a microphone somewhere in a stadium, the NFL wants its players to stop using a particular racial slur that has crept into many vocabularies.

Falcons president Rich McKay, the chairman of the competition committee, and Rams coach Jeff Fisher, a committee member, said the NFL intends to strictly police abusive and hurtful language.

“We have an element of respect that we have to bring back to the game,” Fisher said during a conference call. “It starts in the locker room and continues over onto the practice field and carries over onto the field on Sundays. We have to take a hard look at taunting. We have to take a hard look at language.”

The kind of language that Steelers co-owner Dan Rooney implored his players to stop using last season, according to defensive backs Ike Taylor and Ryan Clark.

“We have a current rule that states using abusive or threatening or insulting language or gestures to opponents, teammates or officials or representatives of the league is unsportsmanlike conduct,” Fisher said. “The officials will be empowered to call the foul if there are racial slurs or statements regarding a player's sexual orientation or even baiting or insulting verbal language.”

The competition committee, of which Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is a first-year member, is the driving force behind what essentially is a crackdown on bad words. The stricter policy enforcement will be explained to players during their spring workouts.

Rooney said any discussion about sportsmanship “is welcomed, and I think it's something that the idea (is) being positive on the field and respecting the opponent.”

However, he is somewhat skeptical whether a specific rule banning a specific racial slur could be successfully enforced. He likened it to a “generation gap kind of thing” in which younger players have a different attitude than those such as Hall of Famer Joe Greene had.

During meetings that run through Wednesday, the owners will act upon 20 rule changes and proposals, including these:

• Modifying the extra point kick by moving it back to the 25-yard line, to bring a degree of difficulty into a play that was converted all but five times last season.

Rooney doesn't believe there is a league consensus for this, in part because it would all but eliminate the two-point conversion. Rather, he favors Tomlin's idea that teams get the ball at the 1, thus encouraging more two-point tries.

• Allowing the league office to consult referees during instant replay reviews.

“Our command center in New York, headed by (officiating chief) Dean Blandino, will already be reviewing a play (before the referee goes under the hood),” Fisher said.

• Eliminating overtime from preseason games, even though only three of 320 preseason games the past five seasons required OT.

• Increasing the number of players that could be placed on the injured reserve list with the intent to return, as the Steelers' David DeCastro and Matt Spaeth were the last two seasons.

• Increasing the height of the goalpost uprights from 30 to 35 feet, to better aid officials in making field goal calls.

The owners also will discuss increasing the playoff field from 12 to 14 teams, an expansion that seems very likely to occur in 2015.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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