Posted: 7:25 p.m.
LewisINDIANAPOLIS — In a meeting as informal as his sports jacket and sports shirt, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell convened the high-powered Conduct Advisory Committee meeting here Thursday at the scouting combine with some formal titles across the table that included the group's only head coach in the Bengals' Marvin Lewis and one of his 1,000-yard receivers in T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
The four-hour discussion didn't touch on specific teams or markets, but general off-field problems that could spawn an expanded rookie symposium and other educational programs in what NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw called "the first step" in confronting the escalation of off-field misconduct.
The power lunch consisted of Goodell and club owners Dan Rooney of the Steelers and Pat Bowlen of the Broncos, as well as management council executive Harold Henderson and NFL vice president for programs Mike Haynes.
But the special guests were a handful of players ranging from Houshmandzadeh, 15-year veteran Troy Vincent, Pro Bowlers Steve Smith and DeAngelo Hall, Super Bowl champion Jeff Saturday, and second-year player LenDale White from a group that surprised Upshaw with its hard-line stance against wayward peers and the realization that the players are different than even a decade ago.
"It was cool; just like talking to you," said Houshmandzadeh of his give-and-take with Goodell. "It affects my team, so I was brainstorming with them. I think now they're going to take what we said and go back and try to iron some things out. I think they're going to try and do more things to help you. They do things now. There's all the resources in the world right now. In reality, what else can you do? But they're businessmen and that's why they sit down and brainstorm."
Upshaw and Vincent, the president of the NFLPA, stressed that Lewis and Houshmandzadeh weren't chosen for the meeting because of the Bengals' nine arrested players since late in the 2005 season.
Indeed, since cornerback Johnathan Joseph was arrested for marijuana possession a month ago, Colts running back Dominic Rhodes and Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux have been arrested and four others players have joined Bengals middle linebacker Odell Thurman in pleading no contest or guilty in court.
"What's amazing about these guys that were here is that they are very, very concerned about all of this," Upshaw said. "They talked up, they spoke, they gave us all the information we need and now we just have to take it to the next level."
Among the players was one of the closest friends of murdered Denver cornerback Darrent Williams, fellow cornerback Domonique Foxworth, as the committee also touched on player safety on and off the field in a pair of sessions.
Other players called were Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, Saints tight end Ernie Conwell, Texans tight end Mark Bruener, and Seattle safety Ken Hamlin. Upshaw and Vincent wanted to cull a variety of players with different backgrounds not afraid to express their opinions.
"You guys know these guys," Goodell said of his players. "They're terrific. Everyone in there today was terrific. They were open, honest."
But Goodell, who has sent a stern message to players since he took office back in August that included a two-game suspension to Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry, reiterated his line from the Super Bowl two weeks ago that players and teams have to be more accountable.
He said the NFL could "potentially" modify its disciplinary policies over the offseason in one response to the outbreak in arrests. Financial sanctions accessed to teams that continually have offenders and a revamping of the discipline sections of the collective bargaining agreement are some options being speculated.
"The one thing that's impressive is their focus on the game and their passion for the game," Goodell said, "and how important it is to them that the game be perceived well and that players be perceived well. They have a great interest in that. I think there's an issue of players where they recognize they hold a special place in communities because of the popularity of the NFL and they recognize they have a responsibility."
Upshaw said he was surprised that the players called for a similar three-strikes-and-your-out policy for all conduct, just like there is for alcohol and substance abuse. Thurman is serving a year suspension for at least three violations of the substance abuse policy.
"What was interesting and I didn't think I would hear this is that the players believe when it comes to the personal conduct area, you can't be in the wrong place at the wrong time three or four times in a row," Upshaw said. "There comes a time when maybe you need to look at saying, 'OK, that's enough, you did it three times, you should be out.' You have to look at each circumstance, but they're saying there has to be some penalties for your actions."
Yet Upshaw doesn't agree with Bengals president Mike Brown that clubs should have more immediate discipline power in arrests, which come under NFL jurisdiction and wait until the case is resolved. Upshaw cited Lewis' game day deactivations of some players as how the team can use its right of disciplining for conduct detrimental.
"We don't want to give a team more of a say and the reason we don't want to do that is because if you're the star player you'll be treated one way," Upshaw said. "If you're the backup or the third string or the special team guy you'll be treated another way. So we can't do that.
"The drug program is administered through the league office for that same reason. This program is administered through the league office for the same reason. The club still has a right under club discipline, but the league has a separate right. I'm going to take Marvin for example. When Marvin suspends a player for a week, he has a right to do that under club discipline."
But Upshaw, a Hall of Fame guard for the Raiders in the '60s and '70s, acknowledges the players are different even than they were in the '90s.
"We didn't discuss specifically Cincinnati," Upshaw said. "We discussed the league, what's good for the league, what everyone should do and what we need to be dealing with is what these players are dealing with. They are not the same guys (like) Jerry Rice and guys like that. It's different and we have to approach it differently and that's what we're going to do."
Foxworth, who lived the trend when he lost Williams in a New Year's Eve drive-by-shooting eight hours after Denver's final game, spent most of the time listening.
"We talked about a lot of topics. I think the most important thing to us is education," Foxworth said. "Education can go a long way no matter what field it is."
HoushmandzadehHoushmandzadeh talked about continuing education, although Goodell pointed out that the league runs programs during each season at teams' facilities that involve play-acting in off-field situations.
"Get them when they come in and keep doing it," Houshmandzadeh said.
For the past decade, all drafted players have attended a three-day rookie symposium at the end of June and Goodell suggested that program could be expanded and that there could be follow-up sessions on site provided by each team during the season.
"We came to some kind of general philosophy that we want better individuals coming into our game," said Saturday, the Colts Pro Bowl center. "Men who come in from college, we want them to leave being better men than when they came in. That's the goal from Roger all the way down. We want to be better men, just not better players."
Saturday said he enjoyed seeing another side of foes like Houshmandzadeh.
"He brought up a lot of good points. He's a very bright individual," Saturday said. "He offered a lot today. It's always interesting to see how guys act off the field."
Foxworth admitted he's "a big fan of both" Lewis and Houshmandzadeh and if there's one thing that Thursday proved is that Lewis' reputation around the NFL is intact even if some outside believe the arrests have tarnished it.
"The reality is there is only so much a head coach can do. It boils down to players," Saturday said. "I think Marvin is doing a good job of trying to keep everything together and I think he's a good man. I think he'll get it back on track."
Lewis declined comment after the main session and Houshmandzadeh, as well as everyone else, was reluctant to reveal specifics of the discussion. He said he's not sure what he said is going to stick with the powers that be.
"I guess we'll find out," he said, "when they come up with something."