DeMaurice Smith, the head of the NFL players' union, said Tuesday he plans to meet soon with commissioner Roger Goodell to discuss the NFL's increased fines for helmet-to-helmet hits and the way those sanctions are appealed.
The high-level meeting, which Smith said would take place "in the near future," would address a sensitive issue that has grabbed attention league-wide and especially in Philadelphia, where the Eagles have seen players heavily fined, hit, and knocked unconscious on plays that sometimes drew penalties and sometimes did not.
"I think it's important that we discuss both the policy, the fines, the amount of the fines, and the manner in which the amounts were determined and the punishment was determined," Smith said at an NFL Players Association event at the Water Works Restaurant and Lounge.
Of particular concern, Smith said, is the appeals process and what he saw as inconsistency in the way penalties and fines - some as high as $75,000 - have been handed out.
"Some of the fines were imposed even when no flags were thrown. Our players look at other contact issues, where neither a flag nor a fine is imposed, so I think it's important to have a discussion about it all," Smith said.
When the union does appeal fines, the decision goes to another NFL official rather than a neutral party. The union has not been able to overturn or reduce fines for helmet-to-helmet hits.
"We have always believed a better system is to have a neutral arbitrator," Smith said.
However, league spokesman Michael Signora pointed out that the NFL and the union agreed to the appeal process in August. "Appeals are heard and decided by pro football Hall of Fame player and former NFL coach Art Shell and by former NFL player and coach Ted Cottrell," Signora said in an e-mail.
He said that Shell and Cottrell were appointed jointly by the union and the NFL.
The league's high-profile crackdown on helmet-to-helmet hits is meant to reduce some of the dangerous blows that have become familiar parts of the game. But the heightened scrutiny has drawn the ire of players, particularly given the size of the fines that often come after fast-moving plays.
The heightened fines came about in part because of a violent Oct. 17 collision that knocked out Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson. Linebacker Ernie Sims became one of the first players to pay when he was fined $50,000 for a hit against the Titans on Oct. 24, although the play did not draw a penalty. Cornerback Asante Samuel was later docked $40,000 for a hit against the Giants Nov. 21. Safety Kurt Coleman drew a penalty but no fine for another hit that left Colts wide receiver Austin Collie lying prone on Nov. 7.
Meanwhile, kick returner Ellis Hobbs suffered a neck injury that ended his season, and possibly career, after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit that was deemed legal.
Hobbs was one of two Eagles at Tuesday's event, intended, according to the NFLPA, to thank the fans. It also gave the union a chance to make its case regarding a new collective bargaining agreement and rally local union members in a city with deep labor roots.
"We want to play games, but we're the ones out there playing, and we just want a fair deal," said tackle Winston Justice, the Eagles' union representative. "I'm totally behind the NFLPA. I don't think they're being greedy. . . . I think they just want fair compensation for what the players do."
Smith declined to discuss specifics of negotiations with the league but said he has been "brutally clear" in warning players to prepare for a lockout in 2011.
He said an 18-game regular season, an issue pushed by NFL owners, is a "nonstarter" under the league's "current system." He cited increased injury risks but left the door open for compromise. The NFLPA has held similar events in union-strong NFL cities such as Pittsburgh and Green Bay.