LAS VEGAS — NFLPA executive director Lloyd Howell spoke about pro football players wanting to steer the NFL toward concessions on gambling and playing surfaces, in his state of the league news conference Wednesday leading up to Super Bowl LVIII. Players on both sides of the ball would also like to see NFL officials scrap talk about making the hip-drop tackle an illegal tackle and a punishable offense.
Howell, the new executive director, and executive committee members J.C. Tretter, Atlanta Falcons defensive end Calais Campbell, free agent safety Michael Thomas, Jacksonville Jaguars kicker Brandon McManus and Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler provided insight on these issues, on which union leaders and league officials continue to engage in discussions.
The hope is the two sides can reach a place of understanding that will 1) Do away with what the players view as unreasonable punishment and fine systems while also giving them greater freedom — particularly when it comes to legalized sports betting; and 2) Convince owners to ensure safer working conditions, most notably when it comes to playing surfaces.
Since taking over as the successor to DeMaurice Smith back in June, Howell — a former business executive, who spent the past 34 years working as the chief financial officer of Booz Allen Hamilton — has crisscrossed the country to meet with players on all 32 NFL teams, and 20 of the 32 owners. His travels and discussions have helped him gain a better understanding of players’ needs and owners’ viewpoints while working to establish relationships with both groups.
Here’s what Howell and the NFLPA player leaders had to say about these two topics that have dominated the off-field conversation of Super Bowl week and the season as a whole.
The legalization of sports gambling has an impact on the NFL as league officials work to evolve to better cater to fans and capitalize on additional business partnerships. However, there’s a hypocritical feel to the way the league has formed partnerships with companies like FanDuel, DraftKings and Caesars. Every stadium and game broadcast features advertising for betting, and some stadiums house sportsbooks.
“It’s here and it’s not going anywhere,” Howell said. Meanwhile, players aren’t allowed to take part in any betting on NFL games, and they are prohibited from betting on non-NFL sporting events while on team property or team trips.
Earlier this season, Howell and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell engaged in a series of discussions that led to the lessening of punishments for betting on non-NFL sporting events on team property, reducing punishment from six games to two games. But Wednesday, Howell and the players explained that the rule still must evolve further.
“I feel like you know the rules are outdated,” Campbell explained. “There was a time where it made sense, but now with technology and being able to bet on baseball or basketball or your phone, I don’t understand why just because I’m in a locker room or on a Wednesday or whatever, that I can’t pick up my phone and pick (a game).
“I understand protecting the integrity of the game, and you don’t want to put people in a compromised position. … Nobody wants to have a guy betting on football. That’s not OK. But, you know, with technology is the way it is and you can tell exactly what people are betting on, and you know it has nothing to do with the integrity of the game, why not give us this opportunity to be able to make money when we’re doing that as a league?”
Thomas agreed, adding, “Even our fans don’t see us betting on another sport that’s not the NFL as that’s threatening the integrity of the game. So, it’s just trying to make more changes that make sense. That’s common sense. And moving forward, I think that’s what we’re just trying to do.”
Even if the league does move to a point where players are allowed to bet on non-NFL sporting events on team property — for example, during their downtime in the locker room or during lunch breaks — NFLPA leaders believe it’s extremely important they work to continue to educate players on the importance of conducting themselves responsibly.
Legalized sports betting and the explosion of social media have also impacted players because now they often receive ridicule from fans who lost money because a player didn’t hit a certain benchmark on a parlay. Other times, in instances where they do succeed, fans bombard them on social media with praise, creating a mental rollercoaster of sorts.
“One of the best things about being part of this league is your engagement with the fans,” McManus said. “Now, sometimes it’s positive, sometimes negative and a lot of times you see funny stories about people; you know, for me if I made a kick it’s ‘You won me $10,000 on a parlay!.’ … But there was a running back that was attacked on social media because he didn’t have the best game.
“So, we really need to do what we can to help support the mental health of our players as everyone navigates different paths with gambling. … There’s a lot of revenue driven as we share that pie with the owners. But we need to continue to find a healthy balance to grow the game and continue to support our players.”
Field conditions and safety
In the last year, players have become more outspoken about the need for their teams to provide safer playing surfaces. They have lobbied for owners to do away with artificial turf and switch all fields to grass. Players argue that playing on less forgiving artificial surfaces leads to increased injury risks. NFLPA leaders say their studies have revealed the injuries caused by playing on artificial surfaces compared to natural grass can shorten a player’s career by two years.
Meanwhile, NFL officials, including Goodell, have said there’s not a dramatic difference between artificial surfaces and natural grass.
Howell said Wednesday an NFLPA survey of 1,700 players revealed 92 percent of players prefer high-quality natural grass fields to artificial turf. Some owners are resistant to change because of the financial cost involved in switching to grass surfaces, and Goodell said earlier this week the solution could involve finding a hybrid type of surface.
News broke this week that MetLife Stadium will host a World Cup game in 2025, and to satisfy the demand of international soccer players, a natural grass surface will temporarily replace the field turf surface the New York Giants and New York Jets play on — a surface players have been very vocal in blaming for injuries.
“We’ve learned that in stadiums that today are turf, they will put down a synthetic grass field, and then FIFA will roll it up and take it with them,” Howell explained. “So there’s a model out there that says, for another sport, it’s possible.”
Howell said, however, during his talks with owners and league officials, he learned there’s not a unanimous opinion on the part of owners. Some owners with turf-field stadiums are receptive to learning more about improved alternatives while others are not. Howell said the league remains in the data-collecting process when it comes to examining high-grade synthetic grass as a potential alternative to switching to natural grass.
“It’s still early, but it will not negate the fact that our members want to play on grass,” Howell explained. “And so we can prove or disprove everything around high grade or highly consistent synthetic. But as you heard from (Tretter) a minute ago, grass is still preferable from an injury perspective and a performance perspective and that’s what our members want.
“So yes, effort is underway by the league. We are working with them to understand the results. We’re challenging them with what the results are and the hypotheses and the like, which you would expect. But I’d say we’re far from any resolution on that.”
The quality of the San Francisco 49ers’ practice field in Las Vegas sparked debate because members of the team complained the surface was far too soft. Tretter said it was learned the practice field’s sod was installed incorrectly, but league officials deemed the surface “playable.”
“That’s a problem,” Tretter said. “Also, leading to Roger’s press conference on Monday, they said ‘It’s OK because the field’s playable.’ When we talked about it last week, we said we need to raise the level to make both surfaces high quality and then a week later you’re saying, ‘It’s OK because it’s playable.’ Playable is not the same standard as high quality that’s about as low as you can go to say it’s OK. So we can’t kind of talk out of both sides of our mouth to say injury data looks like this. We want high-quality fields. That’s OK because it’s playable. That’s not what we do. We want high-quality surfaces for our players to play on and practice on. I don’t think we have that.”
In another safety-related matter, players were asked about discussions on the NFL competition committee eventually moving to make the hip-drop tackle illegal because of the belief it leads to serious injury. NFLPA leaders — players on both sides of the ball — made it clear they see no reason to outlaw the tackle because it’s simply a football play.
“I don’t really know how to play football, if they actually put that rule into effect,” Thomas said.
Campbell expounded: “Yes, it’s about making the game safer and there are a lot of rules that were put in place over the last 10-plus years, you know, that made the game a lot safer and they were big adjustments for players. But I felt like, with this in particular, I just don’t understand how you can police it the right way and allow us to do our job.
“How do you tackle a guy, and I grabbed him, and I’m trying to get to the ground, you know, you kind of pull him down and I kind of fall on his legs — not on purpose, of course, — that’s just a football play. … I know that the whole point is keeping guys on the field and we as players want to keep guys on the field more than anyone. But at the same time, there’s only so much you can restrict in the game and still call it football. Taking this out of the game isn’t going to work.”
Added Ekeler: “Yeah, I think it really compromises the quality of the game on multiple levels. Just the officials and that you’re putting another gray area call for them. ‘Was that, or was it not?’ And then it’s a 15-yard penalty, but maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t. And are their fines associated with it? … it’s part of football.
“Like, you’re tackling people, there’s your body’s going to get twisted and turned all over the place and it’s because you kind of just, you lay out and you go out at full speed, both guys going with a lot of energy. So, I think it’s honestly detrimental to the game if they try to go forward with this.”
(Photo: Kyle Terada / USA Today)