Specifics needed in off-field penalty policy, Billick says

Ravens coach wants players to know in advance what misconduct will cost

March 29, 2000|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- In searching for answers for the NFL's rash of off-the-field problems, Ravens coach Brian Billick said yesterday that a program of what he calls "punitive structure" could be a step in the right direction.

"If you could collectively come up with some type of punitive structure so that they could understand how much risk they are at, [that] may very well be an answer," he said at the AFC coaches' breakfast at the annual March owners' meetings.

Billick is one of three head coaches -- Mike Holmgren of Seattle and Tony Dungy of Seattle are the others -- who have been called on by commissioner Paul Tagliabue to moderate a discussion with each owner and head coach on the topic of off-the-field misconduct today.

The league is concerned about the problem since two players, Rae Carruth, formerly of Carolina, and Ray Lewis of the Ravens, are facing murder charges.

The league has a policy on violence, and Tagliabue recently suspended three players for off-the-field misconduct for the first two games of the coming season -- although one of the players, Jumbo Elliott of the New York Jets, appears ready to retire.

But the policy doesn't set specific penalties for misconduct off the field, and Billick feels the players might be more wary if they knew what the penalties were in advance.

"Why do we have a fine system in the NFL? Why don't you run that stop sign? `I don't want to pay the ticket,' " he said.

He added, "I know that players desire and require structure. The hard part is deciding what offenses qualify for what penalties. The commissioner has a tough balancing act here. I don't know know what the [right] formula is. I'll leave it to brighter and more competent people than me to determine.

"I think any ambiguity you can remove in regards to what action can bring about what consequence will be helpful. It'll make it more clear-cut for the players the risk they're involved in," he said.

Billick noted the success the league has had in eliminating a gambling problem since Paul Hornung and Alex Karras were suspended for the 1963 season.

"The stance the league has had over the years is pretty clear-cut. The players understand it, and I can't remember the last time we had a problem in that area [Art Schichter of the Baltimore Colts was suspended in 1983]. That doesn't mean it won't crop up. The players have a firm understanding of what their responsibilities are, and in doing so have stayed away from that problem," he said.

Billick says a punitive approach is worth trying because he thinks teams have comprehensive programs for players on avoiding problems off the field.

"I don't think you'll find another industry that's as proactive as we are in trying to deal with this issue," he said.

He noted that former running back Earnest Byner runs the support program for the Ravens' players, and the team has 12 separate mandatory tutoring sessions for them. He also gave the players a list of 20 clubs in the Baltimore-Washington area that were off-limits when he took the job a year ago.

"I'm not trying to be self-serving, but I can't think of another team that was any more proactive about the seminars and counseling than we were, and yet here I sit with one of our star players [Lewis] under a very serious set of circumstances. I think that's a perfect case study that just because you're going to do things, don't think you've solved the problem."

But Billick said the Lewis incident doesn't mean he feels the programs can't have a positive effect.

"It's not going to force me to throw my hands up and say, `Why bother?' We're going to continue to try to improve what we do," he said.

The league doesn't plan to take any concrete steps to address the problem at this meeting. It will consider recommendations and then decide what moves to make at the next meetings, in May in Baltimore.

"If this is a 10-step process, this is truly step one or two," Billick said.

NOTES: When the league first considered an eight-division, four-team realignment, it had hoped to institute such geographical rivalries as the Jets-Giants, Ravens-Redskins and Raiders-49ers. But such rivalries now seem unlikely to happen. League officials feel there aren't enough non-divisional geographical rivalries, and they're concerned it could lead to a competitive advantage for some teams. So it now looks as if the Ravens will play the Redskins during the regular season only once every four years under the new setup starting in 2002. Each AFC team will play one of the four NFC divisions each year.

The league told the Ravens last season to stop doing the "Baltimore Bomb," in which a group of players clebrated by gathering in a circle, throwing the ball in the air and then falling backward to the ground. Now the competition committee will ask the owners to pass a rule banning such demonstrations, including the St. Louis "Bob and Weave." Only single-player demonstrations will be allowed if the measure passes.

The owners are expected to vote to keep instant replay for at least another year today. Several teams that don't like the concept appear to be willing to give it one more year.

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