Nine months have passed since the lockout ended, yet the icy relationship between the NFL and the Players Association persists. The latest issue involves the Saints bounty scandal. Commissioner Roger Goodell wants union executive director DeMaurice Smith to recommend specific discipline for some or all of the 22 to 27 players the league says participated in the pay-to-injure program from 2009 to 2011. Smith has declined to do so because, he says, he has not received concrete evidence supporting the league's allegations regarding players. Moreover, a union source says Smith might not recommend specific punishment even if presented with proof, in part over dissatisfaction with how the situation was handled.
The union wasn't notified of the investigation until hours before the NFL announced its findings on March 2. That left Smith in an awkward position: If he fights potential player discipline too hard, he could be viewed as soft on safety; if he protests too little, players might believe he isn't supporting them.
In a perfect world Goodell and Smith would have worked out the terms of the discipline before the public learned of the scandal. Their predecessors, Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw, often cooperated closely on controversial issues, to present a common front and to limit fallout. The relationship between Smith and Goodell has yet to reach that point. One of the first signs of continued trouble came after the lockout, when the NFL announced that the sides had agreed that players would undergo blood testing for human growth hormone, the first U.S. sports league to do so. Lost in that announcement was a provision that testing could not occur without the union's final consent, and Smith had no intention of giving his O.K. until concerns about the test's accuracy could be addressed. When members of Congress and the antidoping community joined the league's call for immediate HGH testing, union officials viewed it as an attempt to strong-arm them.
The sides have worked together on issues such as raising the salary cap and disciplining the Redskins and Cowboys for front-loading contracts in the uncapped 2010 season. But the bounty scandal has raised tensions again. The union was unhappy that it was not involved in the probe, and the league was miffed last Friday at Smith's claim that he didn't have enough information to discuss player discipline—even though the NFL invited union officials on March 2 to review the findings and provided the NFLPA with two confidential reports regarding the investigation.
Expect the tug-of-war to continue. For one, before the union agrees to HGH testing, it is expected to demand that an independent arbiter be put in place for player appeals involving off-field issues, something on which Goodell currently has the final say. Just another sign that for the NFL and its union, the spring thaw has yet to begin.