When Roger Goodell brought down the hammer on Adam "Pacman" Jones and Chris Henry yesterday, the NFL's rookie commissioner took a bold step toward eradicating the league's troublesome image as a home for renegade millionaires.
Whether Goodell hit the mark with his get-tough missive and a new personal conduct policy, he at least served notice the country-club days are over in the NFL. No more wrist slaps for repeat offenders.
Cross the line, pay with time.
Jones and Henry, former teammates at West Virginia, got the message. Goodell suspended Jones, one of the league's top cover cornerbacks for the Tennessee Titans, for the 2007 season. He hit Henry, a big-play receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals, with an eight-game suspension.
Both players will have to work for reinstatement, meeting conditions stipulated by the league as well as their respective teams. In a letter sent to both players, Goodell said that further lapses could result in banishment from the league.
"We must protect the integrity of the NFL," Goodell said in a statement. "The highest standards of conduct must be met by everyone in the NFL because it is a privilege to represent the NFL, not a right. These players, and all members of our league, have to make the right choices and decisions in their conduct on a consistent basis."
The suspensions were announced moments before the league unveiled its new personal conduct policy, with the caveat that the discipline for Jones and Henry was meted out under the league's previous policy.
News of a tougher policy and more stringent penalties was greeted with approval outside the league.
"The NFL deserves a lot of credit," said Dr. Mitch Abrams, a sports psychologist who oversees the mental health of inmates at six prisons in New Jersey. "Even though it's gotten so much bad publicity with all of the things different players have done, it's also been at the forefront at really trying to address this.
"The NFL is trying to give its players a wake-up call. Either get your act together so you can do all the things you're able to do, or you can lose everything. Not just money and a jersey, but maybe your life."
Jones and Henry have become poster boys for what is wrong with the NFL. Jones has been arrested five times since the Titans made him the sixth pick of the 2005 draft. He has not been convicted on any charges, with two pending. Police in Las Vegas recommended felony and misdemeanor charges after a shooting at a strip club injured three and paralyzed one man. It was the 10th time Jones was involved with the police since joining the Titans.
Henry has four arrests since December 2005, and was suspended by the league for two games in 2006. His arrests are for marijuana possession, concealed weapons, providing alcohol to minors and driving under the influence.
But Jones and Henry aren't the only ones scrawling graffiti on the NFL's well-manicured image. Defensive tackle Tank Johnson of the Chicago Bears is serving a four-month jail sentence for violating probation on a 2005 weapons conviction. He was arrested three times in 18 months and suspended for one game by the Bears.
Abrams boiled yesterday's action down to a common denominator. "It'd be nice to believe it was a response to this ethical dilemma," he said, "but it's simply this: [The NFL said] we have a product, our product is based on sales. People don't want to come see criminals making millions when they can't rub two nickels together themselves."
It's not just the players the league is concerned about, either. In the past year, two assistant coaches - Joe Cullen of the Detroit Lions and Joe Woods of the Minnesota Vikings - have been arrested on drunken driving charges. Cullen also was arrested for allegedly driving naked through a fast-food pickup window.
Perhaps that's why Goodell said he was holding NFL and club employees to a higher standard than players. In instances where a club employee violates the personal conduct policy, the team itself will be subject to discipline.
The new policy calls for expanded educational and support programs, with the threat of larger fines and longer suspensions. All players suspended will have to earn their way back into the league with professional counseling and treatment.
Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, signed off on the policy after several months of discussion.
"We believe that these are steps that the commissioner needs to take and we support the policy," Upshaw said in a statement. "It is important that players in violation ... have the opportunity and the support to change their conduct and earn their way back."
Whether Jones returns to Nashville may be academic. Titans owner Bud Adams issued a statement of his own saying the team "will need assurances from the player on a number of issues before we are comfortable having him return."