The NFL doesn't have an image problem. It still is tremendously prosperous. It continues to be enormously popular.
You want competitive balance? This is a league in which fifth- and sixth-seeded playoff teams have won two of the last three Super Bowls -- a league where, as Atlanta Falcons president and NFL competition committee co-chairman Rich McKay points out, "people begin every year with the idea that they can compete for a championship even though the odds-makers have said otherwise."
You want scoring? Last year's 43.4 points-per-game average was the NFL's highest since 1983 and touchdowns were up to nearly five per game. You want big plays? Last year's average of 428 passing yards per game was the second highest in league history. You want games that don't drag on forever? The average length of a game in 2007 was down to one of its lowest levels in 10 years -- three hours, two minutes and 59 seconds -- while plays per game increased to 153.1.
In short, the NFL offers the best for which sports fans yearn.
The challenge is keeping it that way.
That's where the league's proactive approach to addressing its problems, such as the New England Patriots' videotaping scandal, comes in.
"If there is an issue, if there are concerns, we're not going to pretend they don't exist," says Ray Anderson, the NFL's senior vice president for football operations. "We're also not going to pretend that we're perfect, but we're certainly going to try to get there ... We don't deny that we've got issues to deal with, so we go after them."
Getting after "Spygate" and other issues that pose a threat to the integrity of the NFL will be a top priority when owners, club executives, and coaches gather for the annual spring meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., beginning Sunday.
Certainly, the agenda includes other important items, not the least of which is discussion of looming challenges on the labor front.
However, the NFL's integrity will be front and center. And that's exactly where it should be.
"The main thing is accountability from top to bottom in protecting integrity and maintaining the confidence among our fans," Anderson says. "That's what we're looking to do."
In response to a March 6 memo from Commissioner Roger Goodell, the league's competition committee is submitting to owners a proposal that calls for teams to assume "several duties" aimed at keeping them and their competition in compliance with the rules.
"The first being that the owners, GM, president and head coach will be responsible for annually certifying compliance with the rules and policies," Anderson says. "We do that in a lot of businesses where you have to get audited and the senior person signs off on the audit that things are in truthfully good order. We think that will help with accountability."
The league and its teams also will consider establishing a process in which "whistleblowers" can report actual or suspected violations with the protection of confidentiality. In addition, the NFL is looking at altering its standard of proof to be more in line with civil court, where it's preponderance of the evidence (meaning it's more likely than not that something occurred), rather than criminal court, where it's proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
These are crucial steps toward helping to make sure that there isn't a repeat of the incident that took place during the '07 season-opening game between New England and the New York Jets, when a Patriots employee was caught videotaping the Jets' defensive signals. Goodell slapped Pats coach Bill Belichick with a $500,000 fine, while the team was fined $250,000 and made to forfeit its first-round draft pick.
But the commissioner didn't leave the incident's ramifications at that. He is well aware of strong speculation that similar rules violations have been going on for years throughout the league. The "everybody does it" defense simply doesn't cut it with him. Nor does it wash with numerous other coaches or team officials.
Fans understand competitive disparities, that some teams have better players and coaches than others. What they don't accept is unscrupulous behavior to gain an unfair advantage.
Nothing will damage the NFL's credibility -- along with its prosperity and popularity -- faster than the perception that some clubs play by the rules while others don't.
That also was the impetus behind the league's consideration of instituting a five- to seven-day period before the start of free agency during which player agents would be permitted to contact teams about their prospective free-agent clients. Neither signings nor contact with players would be allowed during that period. However, league and team executives are convinced it would go a long way toward preventing widespread illegal negotiation before free agency starts.
The San Francisco 49ers recently had to forfeit their fifth-round draft choice this year for holding such talks with Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs and violating the NFL's anti-tampering policy.
"We've taken the issues straight on (as a league)," said McKay, who discovered that first-hand when Goodell indefinitely suspended Falcons quarterback Michael Vick for his involvement in dog fighting. "The commissioner has come right out ... whatever discipline issues that we've had, he's dealt with them, dealt with them quickly, and moved to put them behind us.
"I think those factors certainly help our game."
The focus at the league meetings will be to keep it that way.
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