With players acting up, NFL needs to tone them down

December 18, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

RAVENS OWNER ART Modell was watching Sunday night when New Orleans Saints receiver Joe Horn made a choreographed cell-phone call in the end zone to celebrate a touchdown. Modell expected a delivery truck to arrive at midfield within the next 30 minutes.

"I was waiting for the pizza man to hand out one with cheese, and one with all the goodies. Why not? Anything can happen out there these days," Modell said, laughing.

And then his laughter was replaced by silence.

"It has become a three-ring circus out there," said Modell, who has owned the franchise for more than 40 years. "League commissioner Paul Tagliabue will have to issue some kind of proclamation against what is going on. Forget the fines; they're going to need some suspensions. It's outrageous."

The NFL is getting out of control. Over the weekend, Detroit Lions president Matt Millen twice called Kansas City Chiefs receiver Johnnie Morton a "faggot," according to published reports. New York Giants linebacker Micheal Barrow compared his team's 45-7 loss to the Saints to being raped.

Then there was Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Johnson, who, after catching a touchdown pass, pulled out a sign behind a snow drift that read: "Dear NFL: Please don't fine me again. Merry Christmas. Chad Johnson."

Modell is right in one sense. The NFL needs to start suspending players, but giving them muzzles would be nice, too. It's time for officials to take back their league before the sideshows overshadow it. The NFL is lowering its standards to those of pro wrestling and boxing.

"You want players to have passion for the game," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "You want them to enjoy the game. Like anything, you wish the players would use better judgment at times. It's the ultimate team sport. Anytime you try to step up and individualize yourself from the team, I don't think it's a good thing in good times or bad."

Fines aren't enough.

Before he pulled out the cell phone Sunday, Horn had been fined seven times for unsportsmanlike conduct penalties since becoming a Saint in 2000. He was fined $30,000 for Sunday's stunt, and says he will pay the $5,000 fine for teammate Michael Lewis, who helped pull it off. Johnson drew a $10,000 fine from league officials for at least his second offense of the season.

That tells you something. The players don't care. They toss around thousands of dollars like we chuck around pennies. That's why Tagliabue has to up the ante for these knuckleheads. You start snatching away big portions of game checks and you'll get their attention.

But the league has to get all the owners on board, as well as the NFL Players Association. League officials had considered suspending Horn for two games, but Saints owner Tom Benson intervened on Horn's behalf. If Horn had been suspended, he would have forfeited $82,000 of his $700,000 base salary.

You can see the direction this thing might be headed, though. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome declined to comment about Horn and Johnson because he is a member of the league's competition committee. But Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end, is old school, and so is his boss, Modell.

You can bet unsportsmanlike conduct issues will be thoroughly discussed in collective bargaining talks that can begin at the end of this season. Carl Francis, the NFLPA's director of communications, said there probably will be discussions about the Horn incident in February.

"We represent Joe Horn. We represent the players," Francis said. "I'm sure this will be an issue that will need to be addressed. We'll listen to what people have to say and any suggestions the competition committee may have."

Said Modell: "You think Vince Lombardi would have put up with stuff like this, or Pete Rozelle? It's an issue that has to be addressed."

There was a time when touchdown celebrations were short-lived and fun. They were spontaneous, the result of a long drive or big play that was achieved through teamwork.

I confess. I thought Kansas City Chiefs receiver Elmo Wright was cool when he did his touchdown dance. I liked watching Detroit Lions tight end David Hill and Billy "White Shoes" Johnson perform after scoring (forget Ickey Woods, he was too stiff).

But now everything is contrived. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers couldn't choreograph some of this stuff. It's not just dancing, though. We had San Francisco 49ers receiver Terrell Owens reaching into his sock for a pen and autographing a ball. We have the long, drawn-out introductory dance for Ray Lewis at M&T Bank Stadium. We have the Seahawks' receivers doing their version of The Swing after a touchdown. There is no shame.

Despite being down 31-0 on Sunday, Falcons running back T.J. Duckett had the gall to do a celebratory dance after a touchdown. Please, can't anyone just give the ball to the official?

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