Players' innocence, guilt matter little in era of new commissioner

The Baltimore Sun

If you weren't sure before last week, then you ought to be sure now: NFL history can now be divided into two eras -- B.G. and A.G. Before Goodell and After Goodell.

Before Goodell, a player could be charged with having enough guns in his house to supply an island rebellion, and he would still be allowed to play. In the Super Bowl, no less.

After Goodell, that same player could be charged with driving a little too fast after consuming alcohol within legal limits and get kicked off his team almost before he finishes posting bail.

Tank Johnson's history of legal troubles, including December's gun charges, led to two months in jail earlier this year. But on the field, he benefited from the earlier era of NFL "discipline," for a complete lack of a better word. He missed one regular-season game.

Two weeks ago, he paid the price for not meeting the standards of commissioner Roger Goodell's new era. Now unemployed and still prohibited from restarting his career for the next eight regular-season games, Johnson is a living example to the players he left behind that, in the A.G. era, it's no longer "anything goes."

More like "nothing goes."

The players surely won't like it. They didn't like it before Johnson got yanked off the Chicago Bears' roster two weeks ago after a traffic stop in Arizona. They'll like it even less when a player with a bigger name and reputation falls victim to the next zero-tolerance stance a team takes.

Like, oh, just to throw a franchise out there as an example, the Atlanta Falcons. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that its star quarterback, a marquee name, a big jersey-seller, the cornerstone of a franchise, was under a lengthy investigation for something heinous, such as, I don't know, inhumane animal fighting. No arrests, no charges, no prior record to speak of -- but all are operating in an atmosphere where no leeway, no free passes and no exceptions are given anymore.

There would not only be precedent, but good reason, for that team to drop that player like a bad habit, before the NFL has a chance to step in. Not only would that have seemed unlikely B.G., it would have seemed impossible.

Those days are over.

People can yell all they want about due process, being innocent until a court proves them guilty and being held to a different standard than the average citizen. But remember this: Johnson himself isn't even yelling that.

Last week, a week after the Bears released him, citing their zero-tolerance policy with him after Goodell's half-season suspension, it was found that Johnson was under the legal limit for impairment and was not charged.

"I am not surprised by the decision, but I am relieved. I am still disappointed at having been released by the Bears, yet I know the organization was placed in a difficult position when I was stopped," Johnson said afterward.

That is the new standard. You put your organization in a difficult position, and you risk finding yourself looking for a new job.

In the B.G. era, nothing players were doing seemed to ever put their teams or the league in a position difficult enough for them to act. All it sparked was a bunch of platitudes, denials and defensiveness -- less from the players than from coaches, executives and, you know, commissioners. Previous commissioners, that is.

You heard a bunch of it the week before the Super Bowl when the Bears talked about rushes to judgment and letting the system work and standing by their teammate, and the league remained silent. Johnson seemed more willing to take responsibility for his actions than any of them did.

It wasn't until Goodell laid down the law -- eight-game suspensions for Johnson and Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry and a full season for Tennessee Titans cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones -- that teams suddenly found the intestinal fortitude to set their own standards to conduct.

If you want to call the Bears hypocrites, go ahead, because they are. But they also were playing by the old rules.

The Bengals ran out of patience with linebacker A.J. Nicholson in May after a domestic assault charge, although the case had not been resolved and still hasn't been. A previous burglary arrest, before last season, hadn't been enough, but this was.

On deck: the Falcons, or so it would seem. On Friday, the dogfighting investigation regarding Michael Vick took another step up when federal agents began searching his home, again.

Of course, it's not as if the Falcons would cut Vick loose as easily as the Bears did Johnson, what with salary cap implications, harm to the product on the field and the certain controversy it would involve. But it's no longer a far-fetched scenario. If a player previously given a virtual pardon for his crimes can later get the boot simply for getting pulled over, nothing can be ruled out.

That's life in the NFL A.G. The players had better get on board . If it's not already too late, that is.

david.steele@baltsun.com

For David Steele's blog entry on Tony Parker and Eva Longoria, go to baltimoresun.com/steelepress.

Points after -- David Steele

First, we get a suggestion to expand the World Series by two games, then a suggestion that a second All-Star Game be added. Guess plummeting ratings and mass viewer distrust only affects certain major sports leagues.

I seem to remember a lot of talk not long ago about a Russian revolution in women's tennis, and about how American tennis was dead, and how the Williams sisters were washed up. Then I tuned into Wimbledon last week and got very, very confused.

The network (you know which one) that televised the Nathan's hot dog-eating contest on the Fourth of July sent out an edict the next day banning repeated replays of the runner-up, uh, reversing at the end of the contest. Because airing it every half-hour on every newscast on each of its outlets for two days would have been gratuitous.

Have to admit, though, I was nauseated at every viewing, sickened by the mess spewing from his mouth. Oh, wait, it wasn't Takeru Kobayashi I was watching; it was Kobe Bryant.

It's a crime that the ballot box-stuffing got Barry Bonds into the All-Star Game, and a shame that he won't reward the fans by taking part in the ... ZZZZZZZzzzzzzz.

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