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Foul Behavior

Pro athletes are facing heavier fines and longer suspensions for misconduct, but league officials feel it's a small price for maintaining the image and marketability of their sports
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Jimmy Smits, May/June 2005

(continued from page 2)

On a Sunday afternoon in Denver, a hulking man in a gold jacket is pacing the sideline during pregame warm-ups, jotting notes on a clipboard. Greg Boyd played nine years as a defensive lineman in the National Football League and now serves as one of the league's 32 uniform observers, one for each stadium. During the week, he works as a casino host in nearby Blackhawk and runs his own investment firm, but before every Broncos home game he's out eyeballing the levels of socks and pants, and making certain no player has defaced or altered his helmet or jersey.

Boyd turns in his list of infractions to both teams before the game begins. If a player doesn't correct the problem—towel too long, low socks, high pants—he'll be fined. Fines start at $10,000, Boyd says, "and they move up the scale. Anything having to do with actually defacing the uniform, cutting it or removing anything, and you're at $60,000 right there." Later, he'll also man the locker rooms, trying to spot a player doing a postgame interview with the wrong sponsor's cap on, or a political or profane T-shirt—anything that sends the wrong message. "Emblems, logos, corporate brands," Boyd says. "That gets into some serious dollars for the league. Companies want to make sure they get the exposure they pay for."

You'd think that players who hear about their uniform violations would rush back into the locker room to make an adjustment, believing they have better use for $10,000 than to contribute it to the league. And some do. Others just laugh. "You tell 'em their pants are too short, and when they come back out, they'll pull 'em up further just to mess with you," says Boyd. "They want to make that personal statement. Just young guys, young millionaires, all geeked up out there and doing whatever they want to do. The money doesn't matter to them." Even a player as seemingly levelheaded as Michael Vick, the Atlanta Falcons' star quarterback, was fined in 2002 for wearing red socks (though it was rescinded on appeal).

Players are officially notified of their transgressions each week by courier. Oakland's Ray Buchanan once described the scene: "Every Wednesday, around noon, we peek around the corner, looking for FedEx." He compared the NFL's surfeit of regulations to a boarding school.

A few players use their relative immunity from fines to create a competitive advantage. The Giant's Feely mentions Buffalo Bills strong safety Lawyer Milloy, who has made punishing illegal hits part of his reputation after joining the league in 1996. "He'll say, 'I know I'm going to get fined a few times a year, but it's worth it to have those receivers scared of me,'" Feely says. "A player making less money could never do that. That's why I believe that all fines should be proportional, a percentage of a player's salary. Otherwise, you're creating an unfair advantage."

In the NBA, many fines are proportional. That's because suspensions, which mandate the loss of 1/90th of a player's annual salary per game missed, are relatively common in the league. As many as 30 players a year are suspended for at least one game, according to Stu Jackson, the senior vice president for basketball operations. Artest will lose nearly $5 million of his $6.1 million salary for the 2004—05 season, which still leaves him with a pretty good haul.

"Last year, we had two players use profanity on television, but the circumstances were different," Jackson says. Houston's Steve Francis (now with Orlando) was fined $25,000. The Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal (now with Miami) was suspended for a game. Since O'Neal earned $26,500,000 for the 2003—04 season, the loss of a game's pay cost him $294,444, or nearly an entire year's pay for then teammate Luke Walton—and six times the price Phil Jackson, then O'Neal's coach, paid for criticizing a league official.

Team sports such as basketball have individual franchises as a first line of defense. If an NBA franchise fines or suspends a player for a misdeed, the league usually will consider the matter settled. But many infractions, from fighting on the court to a drunk-driving conviction, mandate league involvement by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement with the NBPA. If repeated infractions occur, a player can be called in to the league office for a conversation with Jackson or NBA commissioner David Stern. That has happened to both Denver's Kenyon Martin and Artest in recent years.

Tennis takes punishment a step further, augmenting a financial impact with point and game penalties. "I don't think there are many sports in which the scoreboard can change as a result of on-court conduct," says David Shoemaker, the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour's chief legal officer and the chairman of the tour's code of conduct committee. "We don't tend to have the sorts of incidents that are prevalent in other sports that necessitate fines and suspensions, such as bench-clearing brawls and someone hitting a mascot over its head, but we do have on-court issues ranging from racket abuse to audible profanity."

After a warning, chair umpires are authorized to issue point penalties all the way to match forfeitures. Point penalties come with automatic $1,000 fines, and game penalties with $5,000 fines, "but I don't think the monetary fine is the deterrent," says Shoemaker. "That first warning can serve as an enormous disincentive."


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