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NFL, players union turn attention to respect, conduct in workplace

| Tuesday, April 8, 2014, 8:51 p.m.
The NFL and its players union met Tuesday in New York to discuss workplace conduct and respect, a let’s-get-on-the-same-page session so important that commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith attended.

The NFL and its players union met Tuesday in New York to discuss workplace conduct and respect, a let's-get-on-the-same-page session so important that commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith attended.

They almost had to.

The meeting grew out of the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying mess in Miami, the realization that an openly gay player soon will be in the league and a large and worrisome increase in on-field taunting — some of it penalized, some not.

Goodell is concerned enough about restoring respect to the game — most prominently, that held by one player for another — that he met with 40 players from nine teams in the last three months to determine how the NFL can clean up its widely watched act.

“(NFL players) want a professional workplace, and we owe it to them,” Goodell said. “We are going to work with them to create it. ... We want them to be comfortable — everyone in that locker room — so they can focus on doing their job.”

To make sure there are no repeats of the Dolphins' hazing incident, NFL coaches, general managers, executives and owners discussed player conduct at length last month during the annual league meetings in Orlando, Fla. However, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin doesn't plan any changes to his own locker room policy.

The Steelers are seen as a model for how a locker room should conduct itself, yet the unprecedented amount of bullying in Miami — younger players being forced to pay for tens of thousands of dollars' worth of dinners, vacations and strip club trips — rattled the league and its franchises. (With the Steelers, the most a rookie pays for is one pricey position-players dinner per season.)

“I want structure without the feel of structure,” Tomlin said. “I want everybody in the building to know what it is that we are doing, what our focus is, what is acceptable and what is unacceptable and cultivate an environment that fuels that.”

And while the Dolphins' Joe Philbin kept his job as coach, others on his staff were not as fortunate. Longtime athletic trainer Kevin O'Neill was fired and replaced by former Steelers assistant trainer Ryan Grove. Other NFL coaches are aware that if another such incident arises, that coach likely won't be able to keep his job.

“If something like that can happen to Joe Philbin, it can happen to any of us,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy, a Greenfield native. “It's a hard, hard lesson we all need to grow from.”

It's not just the conduct of the past that concerns the league.

With Michael Sam about to enter the league, former player Wade Davis — who revealed he is gay after he retired — is consulting with the league on gay issues. In Orlando, he told coaches that, based on his conversations, he knows there are gay players on multiple teams who have chosen not to out themselves.

“(Davis) recognizes that everyone is not an advocate or someone who is going to carry the flag,” Goodell said. “But these are young men who want the opportunity to play in the NFL, and they want to do it right.”

Goodell and Smith also discussed the stricter enforcement of taunting and on-field policy rules following a 2013 season in which 34 taunting penalties were called, up from nine in 2012. Afterward, both sides called the meeting positive.

“We are going to clean up the game on the field between the players,” St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, an NFL Competition Committee member, said in Orlando. “The in-your-face taunting, those types of things. The language, it's all in the (rule) book. ... (It's) in the back of the book. It's now in the front of the book.”

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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