Gentlemen, cool your engines. What was supposed to be the start of the NFL calendar year and the unleashing of all those veteran players not permitted to practice the past week, may have to wait.
The Steelers were the first in the league to sound the alarm Wednesday that players might not approve the new collective bargaining agreement as expected today because those "minor" issues that were supposed to be cleared up over the past 10 days have not been.
Ryan Clark, the Steelers' representative on the NFL Players Association, said they want to change the system in which players are disciplined by the league. And Charlie Batch, on the NFLPA executive board, said there are a number of issues that have to be solved before the players can approve a deal the owners approved unanimously.
"We need some things to be collectively bargained in good faith in totality to get this deal done," Clark said.
The owners and players reached a settlement to end the lockout and open training camp after they agreed on most of the details of the new collective bargaining agreement. The players agreed to recertify as a union, which they did last weekend, and the owners agreed to come to terms on the final remaining points. Among those yet to be decided is the power of commissioner Roger Goodell to levy punishment under his personal conduct policy, issues regarding concussions and when players can return and who decides that, and whether players who previously had strikes against them under the drug policy start with a clean slate.
Batch and Clark said the owners were the ones who decided the new calender year would begin Thursday, even though the players wanted agreements on the outstanding issues before they voted.
"There's a so-called deadline the NFL gave to everyone when we reported to training camp that this date they will have everything done," Batch said. "So I think ultimately it's up to them to basically fulfill their end of the bargain, make sure they come through and get the deal done tomorrow."
Until the players ratify the CBA, no player who signed contracts over the past 10 days -- since the lockout ended -- can practice. Technically, they all remain free agents.
The 15 Steelers with new contract agreements waiting on the sideline to start practice once the new CBA is ratified are Ike Taylor, William Gay, Willie Colon, Jonathan Scott, Mewelde Moore, Chris Hoke, Dennis Dixon, John Gilmore, Tony Hills, Doug Legursky, Ryan Mundy, Shaun Suisham, Daniel Sepulveda, Jeremy Kapinos and Greg Warren. None of their contracts -- after being restricted, unrestricted or exclusive rights free agents -- can officially be filed as signed with the league until the new calendar year.
"I didn't expect to be standing here today having to talk about this," Clark said. "I thought that Ike Taylor, Willie Gay and Willie Colon would be at practice tomorrow. But, right now, that doesn't seem like the case. So we just have to push through and see what's next in this process."
If they don't start practicing soon, those 15 likely will miss the first preseason game in Washington Aug. 12. Both Batch and Clark said the preseason games are not in jeopardy themselves. They do not foresee the owners locking them out again over these final issues, but those players without an official contract remain locked out of practice.
Clark sees Goodell's authority to punish players under his personal conduct policy as the major sticking point.
"Just one issue that's extremely poignant and important to me is the fine policy, the personal conduct policy, the fact Roger Goodell gets to make these decisions whenever he wants, how he wants and the way he wants and really not have to answer to anyone. We really want some type of way, whether it's player involvement, [NFLPA] involvement, someone else on that committee besides Roger Goodell."
Under the personal conduct policy, the commissioner unilaterally instituted without bargaining, Goodell has the power to discipline players he judges as violating the policy. An example was his four-game suspension of Ben Roethlisberger to start last season, even though Roethlisberger was never charged with a crime. Appeals of Goodell's punishment go to a high-ranking NFL lawyer, Adolpho Birch. The players scoff at such a system because Birch, in essence, works for Goodell, and they see it as nothing but a rubber stamp.
"Who writes his checks?" Clark asked.
"We just want somebody who sees it from our point of view or even a situation to where there is a strict fine policy, where there is black and white -- 'this is how things are going to go.' "
Clark also would like to see a better system for dealing out fines for on-field infractions. As currently constituted, Ray Anderson and Merton Hanks of the league's football operations office issue those fines. Appeals are heard by former coaches Art Shell and Ted Cottrell, who were appointed by and paid for mutually by the league office and the players association. Each pays half the cost.
Clearly, though, the players want a different system, one that reduces Goodell's role.
"I didn't say I didn't want him as a part of it, I just said I didn't want him to be the whole part," Clark said. "Right now, he doesn't want anybody else on it. He wants to do it his way, I think the way that he has taken over most of this game."
Although Clark did not speak as strongly as James Harrison did in a recent magazine article in which he criticized Goodell, he was not kind when he spoke of him Wednesday.
"I think he's decided to make himself a major part of this game," Clark said. "I don't know if he had some type of high school dreams or Pop Warner dreams of being an NFL football player, but he has made himself the NFL. He is the most popular or infamous commissioner in sports right now.
"Maybe that's what he wanted to be."
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com . First Published August 4, 2011 4:00 AM