Why The NFL On-Field Fine System Is Not Fine
There has been increased attention to players getting fined for on-field conduct. Here’s how the current system works, what the union’s role is in supporting players and what we can potentially do to change it.
First, here is an explanation of the current system. Players can be fined for several types of on-field violations, under the following categories:
- Unnecessary Roughness (use of helmet, roughing the passer, crackback blocks)
- Unsportsmanlike Conduct Towards An Opposing Player (taunting, fighting, unsportsmanlike gestures)
- Other Unsportsmanlike Or Prohibited Conduct (verbal abuse of an official, fan interactions)
- Conduct Detrimental To The Integrity Of The Game (faking injury, public criticism of officials)
After NFL officials review game footage for violations that were both flagged and not flagged, they discuss those plays they believe warrant fines and then an NFL employee notifies the player of the fine amount. Under our CBA, no player can be fined more than 10% of his game check for a first-time offense and the amount of all fines is fixed based on the type of foul.
Every player has a right to appeal an on-field fine. Appeals of fines for Unnecessary Roughness and Unsportsmanlike Conduct Towards An Opposing Player are heard by two former players who are jointly selected by the NFL and NFLPA. After the appeal is heard, the hearing officer can decide to either uphold the fine, reduce the fine by 20% or rescind the fine entirely. All other types of fine appeals are heard by the Commissioner’s designee, who similarly may uphold, reduce or rescind the fine. All the money collected from on-field fines is then paid equally to charities designated by the NFL and NFLPA.
Here is a look at the data from the 2022 season:
- There were approximately 460 fines issued by the NFL.
- Approximately 100 of those fines were rescinded entirely by the hearing officer(s).
- Approximately 150 were reduced upon appeal.
Our members are voicing their concerns both privately and publicly that the NFL is excessively fining players. Furthermore, the league has control of the points of emphasis and their enforcement. By simply creating a new point of emphasis, the NFL can rack up hundreds of escalating fines on players. This is an approach that does not make sense and is leading to money coming out of players’ pockets for things that, often, they are being coached to execute. In short, players feel this has become less about player safety and more about being overly punitive.
For example, just this season, a player was fined more than $87,000 for an illegal use of helmet. The player’s coach had previously reached out to the league for guidance on how to properly execute the technique his player had been previously fined for, but he received no answer. After receiving this fine, which is more than his entire weekly paycheck, the player appealed to the neutral hearing officer, who rescinded the entire amount and deemed there was no actual violation of the rules.
Another player this year was fined $50,000 for faking an injury. The injury that the player was accused of faking was a concussion. The team’s medical staff told him to go down on the field. He came out of the game for a concussion evaluation, which was required by our jointly appointed UNC and AT Spotter because of the blow to the player’s head. He was evaluated for a concussion and missed the following two series. Despite the emphasis on players’ self-reporting this most serious of injuries, the NFL determined in their review process that a $50,000 fine was warranted. After his appeal, this fine was also rescinded in full.
In our view, this sets a very dangerous precedent. If on one hand, the onus is put on players to self-report injuries for their own safety, how can it be that they get penalized for following the reporting protocol to get their injury reviewed?
The question then ultimately becomes, why fine? As a union that wants to ensure the safety of our members, we can understand a need to hold everyone accountable against dangerous play. But we play an inherently violent sport. Players are moving at high speeds and are required to collide with one another. It is also an inherently imperfect sport. It is not played in slow motion for players to ensure perfect pad level, hand placement and helmet placement. In other words, sometimes collisions happen in ways that are not intended.
This is why our union took a position against the NFL implementing a rule outlawing the “hip-drop” tackle. No one goes into a play wanting to “hip drop” tackle someone. It’s just the result of trying to tackle large human beings at full speed. We believe that there is a widening disconnect between enforcing the rules in the spirit of protecting players from extremely dangerous play to over-regulating and penalizing players for playing an inherently dangerous game. Players will truly understand what this means.
We always want to drive towards solutions. Simply complaining about a problem publicly is not going to make our game safer, not going to reduce the fine amounts being levied and not going to alleviate the frustrations our players have on this issue.
Our union can do a better job of ensuring players know their appeals rights. Last year, 12% of the fines were not appealed. Our union also needs to do a better job working with players and their agents to exercise every option to reduce the fine amount.
For example, first-time “offenders” can watch a short 5-minute instructional video at the end of every season for an automatic additional 25% reduction in the on-field fine amount. About 62% of players did not take advantage of that CBA right, which left $440,000 on the table that could have been back in the players’ pockets.
We also need to work with the NFL to revisit and review the current system and do a better job of advocating for common sense application of the rules.
If eliminating dangerous play is the overall goal, then the current system we have is not fully achieving it. Instead, it is being applied and enforced at the expense of creating confusion and frustration among players and fans. We should be able to come together and find a solution.