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NFL ready to put together an offensive game plan

February 10, 2004|by BOB PARASILITI

Since the beginning of time, people have had an unspoken love for an old-fashioned street fight.

Need a brief inventory of history? There have been the Christians and Lions The Hatfields and McCoys The Sharks and the Jets and the Yankees and the Red Sox, to name a few. That doesn't even include Larry and Curly vs. Moe.

Face it. People stop and stare at anything that resembles a barroom brawl.

There is something raw, almost romantic, about two sides trying to physically assert their will over one another. It's usually a rubbernecker's delight.

One of those battles, be it on the philosophical level, might be on the horizon and it's one that, in time, could have an impact on a sporting event coming to a town near you.

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The National Football League is giving the impression that it is about to test its power as an organization, employer and trendsetter. After a week of public relations black eyes, the league seems ready to take the ball and go on offense with a code of conduct for players as a game plan.

This is more than a knee-jerk reaction to the game of "cleavage peek-a-boo" that was played in last week's Super Bowl or a federal judges ruling which opens the doors to the NFL draft to anyone who can strap on a helmet. Those incidents were the pointed fingers of ridicule which convinced NFL officials that enough's enough.

Like a caged animal being poked with stick, the NFL pounced. It made strikes that could test the resolve of its players while possibly setting an example that could shake the world of sports on every level.

The first two signal flares were fired before the Feb. 1 halftime peep show.

During mid-Hype Week, the NFL opened its play by retracting the fine against Cincinnati quarterback John Kitna for wearing a cap bearing a cross at a post-game interview. For Kitna, it was an expression of his faith. For the NFL, it went against the policy of wearing clothing with symbols other than licensed manufactures.

In time, the NFL realized Kitna was only advertising his belief in God, something wholesome and not for monetary gain.

Act Two came during Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's "State of the League" speech, in which he said the league will be looking to take excessive celebrations off the cellular phone speed dial list by using heavy fines to get everything back in order.

And the latest strike came on Saturday when the NFL kicked Tampa Bay's Simeon Rice off the NFC roster and voted him off the Hawaiian Island because he arrived late, acted poorly at the players' hotel and came improperly dressed for practice by its standards.

These all look to be signs that the NFL is going to take its ball and tell the players to go home if they don't want to play the league's game. The text message to players is simple: Play by our rules or you won't be playing at all. If you don't, we don't need you because there are thousands of guys out there who would love to be in your place.

It might be a brash attitude for an organization, but NFL officials need to be concerned about an "inmates running the prison" attitude taking over. Pro football is at the pinnacle of popularity and any attention away from the organizational standards that got it there could send that popularity on the express elevator downward. It has happened in the other sports.

This is probably nothing more than the old-time belief that no one is bigger than the sport. Football is a sport where teamwork succeeds and individualism destroys. The New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers are a testament to starless football.

Instead, many players are more worried about the steps of the "happy dance" they perform after every first down, sack or touchdown. They forget that it's what they get paid to do. You don't see produce managers at the grocery store spiking an orange after finishing a display.

Some of the direction of conduct that the NFL fears the most came from comments during Sunday's Pro Bowl telecast, both in an interview after Cincinnati's Chad Johnson scored on a 90-yard touchdown pass.

First, sideline reporter Suzy Kolber said to Johnson, "People know you for the celebrations. Tell us about your work ethic." (The later used to be more important than the former.)

Then, announcer Mike Patrick said "It was refreshing to see (Johnson) just hand the ball to the ref after his touchdown."

It's a sad statement when acting normal is considered unique.

The bare-knuckle brawl could start if the NFL starts a "My way or the highway" campaign. The old "No Fun League" moniker would come out again.

There would be more of those inane comments from players about how their fathers' fought in past wars to insure their right to shake their bootys after making their one good play a game. And don't be surprised if the

Players Union doesn't get involved to stop any conduct codes.

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