Nearly two dozen players, coaches, owners and top league and NFL Players Association officials met at the league office in New York for about three hours Tuesday to discuss respect in the workplace -- on and off the field.
According to people in the meeting, during the gathering, the coaches and other representatives of teams -- which included Giants owner John Mara, Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson -- led a candid conversation with players that focused on the role of coaches in setting workplace conduct standards and helping everyone understand and be accountable for living up to those standards.
The meeting, also attended by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, was the outgrowth of concern about workplace behavior that was cast into the public spotlight by the investigation into the dynamics of the Miami Dolphins. Ted Wells' 144-page report on this misconduct saga revealed that players and coaches were involved in inappropriate actions and banter directed at other players and team employees.
The emphasis on creating a more professional work environment has become particularly urgent with the anticipation that former Missouri star Michael Sam will become the first openly gay player to be drafted in May, and the expectation that the handling of Sam's arrival by his new team and the rest of the league will be watched closely by even those just casually interested in football.
Last season also saw a dramatic rise in taunting penalties. Last month, Mara said there was concern among team officials that on-field behavior had reached "almost unacceptable levels." That is particularly worrisome to the NFL, because of the image that taunting projects and the trickle-down influence it has on younger players.
"It was a very productive discussion about how we can work together to ensure that the conduct of all NFL personnel, not just players, consistently meets the highest standards on and off the football field," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.
More discussions are planned.
There was speculation that this meeting could touch on other topics, like potential playoff expansion, but the focus remained on workplace conduct. This was also a dominant theme at the NFL Annual Meeting last month, taking up a large chunk of space in the Competition Committee's report to owners and consuming much of the time spent in meetings. Coaches and team executives heard a powerful presentation about workplace culture by Wade Davis, a former NFL player who came out as gay after his playing career ended. And the Competition Committee, which had pondered but ultimately decided against a new rule that would have imposed penalties specifically for the use of racial slurs, emphasized that a crackdown on disrespectful behavior -- among players, as well as between players, coaches and officials -- would begin immediately.
Taunting penalties jumped from nine in 2012 to 34 in 2013. St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, the co-chair of the Competition Committee, said at the NFL Annual Meeting that tapes would be put together to instruct everyone to change conduct on the field. At the time, Fisher said these tapes could be distributed as early as offseason workouts, which already have begun for teams with new head coaches.
"The discussions between owners and players about a professional workplace were positive," NFLPA spokesman George Atallah said after Tuesday's meeting. "We will continue to work together to set the highest workplace standards for everyone in the business of football."