The big issue in the recent arbitration ruling by Richard Bloch involving Terrell Owens' suspension and subsequent deactivation by the Philadelphia Eagles involved not whether the coach could choose who to play but that he could choose who to practice. The Eagles contended that the coach should have this discretion. The Owens' side said that the coach did not have this discretion. Here is a part of Bloch's written ruling (Italicized emphases are Bloch's. Bold, italicized emphases are Phil's):
The events of this highly unique case reveal a potential tension between the bargained disciplinary constraints of Article VIII, on the one hand, and the important managerial prerogatives reserved to the coach and to the club, on the other. In considering the Coach's decision to keep Terrell Owens away from the team, the attempt must be to assess the limits of the respective boundaries. If the maximum penalty provisions of Article VIII are to have meaning, it follows that a club cannot expand or extend them merely by crying "coach's discretion." Thus, for example, one who fails to promptly report an injury to the team physician or trainer ($200.00 maximum fine under VIII(I)(a)) should not be suspended for the same misconduct under the claimed shelter of coaching prerogative. At the same time, one may not claim that mere professional disadvantage to a player withheld from play or practice is necessarily disciplinary action as contemplated under Article VIII. Recognizing there may be situations that touch both the disciplinary and the discretionary arenas, what counts are the precise circumstances at issue.
The Association concedes the coach has the final say as to who actually plays the game, at least on a week-to-week basis. It claims, however, that this same discretion cannot extend to questions of who practices and otherwise participates off-field. The coach may bench the player, says the Association, but he can't send him home. The "practice/play" distinction, if there be one, is particularly important in this case where, uniquely, the Player's on-field performance has been superb, and is not at issue. The Club's concern is focused, instead, on his articulated intent to engender disruption and dissent off the field. May a coach consider these factors in deciding how to form and field a team? The answer must be "yes". It cannot be that a coach's discretion is limited to Sundays. Surely, the coaching elements of team management take place not only in the games, but in the weeks preparing for them. None of the parties to this relationship, it is fair to say, envisioned the prospect of an arbitrator reviewing a coach's decisions as to, for example, how many reps a player should take in practice, the particular squad to which he should be assigned or, indeed, whether he should practice at all. Nothing in the CBA or in the Player's individual contract requires a contrary conclusion. Concededly, a coach's decision to preclude both practice and play will disadvantage a player, arguably more so than merely riding the bench. This, and the potential overlap between the discretionary and the disciplinary elements of this CBA, is why careful scrutiny is required of all relevant facts of a given case.
This case, then, is about the challenge faced by this team, dealing with this player in these particular circumstances. Mr. Owens and his agent threatened a campaign of disruption and implemented it through repeated acts, large and small, of disrespect, dissent and insubordination, culminating with a well-publicized verbal assault on the team and on the quarterback. The Coach could properly conclude that, however excellent Owens' performance was on the field, his off-field conduct and demeanor were seriously devitalizing the organization. Moreover, and this is important, there was ample reason for the Coach to conclude, in November, that the problem was by no means resolved. At the moment of his being warned of the impending discipline, Mr. Owens was, after all, willing to "sit" rather than attempt to work things out with the team. Indeed, even at the arbitration hearing, the Player made it abundantly clear that his contract issue -- the one that inspired his marked change in attitude during the current season- - was still alive. And, he made it clear, as well, that his view of his obligations to co-exist as a teammate had not changed: In his view, for example, speaking to his quarterback was still not necessary.
Significantly, this is not a case of a coach or a team responding to a discrete event by extending otherwise contractually limited disciplinary sanctions. Involved here was not simply past bad behavior but a current and ongoing threat of continued disruption. This was not merely a question of dealing with the Player's misconduct, a matter to which traditional concepts of discipline are applicable, as discussed earlier in this opinion. The Coach and the Club were faced with far broader issues, given the clear disruption that had occurred: Team unity, cohesiveness and morale are all elements that rest squarely within the wide range of concerns to which a coach is expected to respond.
The Association argues that, to the extent the Coach wished to keep the Player from the fields or the locker room, he should have released him. It is a mark of the highly unusual nature of this case that this should be regarded not only as not disciplinary, but as the desired goal of the Player and his representatives. More to the point, while releasing the Player is an available option, it is not a mandatory one.
In summary, there is ample room to find that the Club could respond to this Player's actions, suspending him without pay to the limits permitted by the collective bargaining agreement for his behavior in this matter. Thereafter, the Coach properly exercised his inherent discretion to conclude that, on balance, the team would be better protected and better off by practicing and fielding a team that did not include Mr. Owens. The problem -- a continuing one -- was almost entirely off-field, and the response properly dealt with that reality.
Both responses, the disciplinary and the discretionary, were specifically understood by these parties and fully countenanced as part of this collective bargaining relationship. The disciplinary side of the equation is expressly established in Article VIII. The non-disciplinary response is part of the core and character of a coach's discretion; significantly, but predictably, it is nowhere constrained by the CBA.
The finding, therefore, is that the Club has shouldered its burden of providing clear and convincing evidence of the Player's misconduct and, moreover, that the four-week suspension was for just cause. Additionally, there was no violation of the labor agreement inherent in the Club's decision to pay Mr. Owens, but not to permit him to play or practice, due to the nature of his conduct and its destructive and continuing threat to the team.
From this, it sounds as if Owens and his agent (and the players' association) would have been happy with Owens being released. That way, he'd possibly (probably?) join another team and would have continued to play and practice in addition to being able to get a contract (possibly) more to his liking. But in being deactivated by the Eagles, he won't be able to practice, play, or negotiate a new contract with a new team. He'll have to work out on his own and wait until the offseason to negotiate with a new team.
We know that Owens is a great player and a difference-maker on the field. There's no doubt about that. But how will this episode affect him financially for the remainder of his NFL career?