'Freedom of speech' not guaranteed in NFL

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Should NFL players be allowed to criticize their employers and co-workers in a public forum?

(Yes! Yes! Yes! ... If you're a reporter, anyway).

The NFL has placed a steep price on negatively critiquing the work of officials and even club management this season, and players are starting to notice. Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen provided a voice to their concerns Monday, saying that recent fines of $20,000 and up are "getting out of hand."

Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher, St. Louis offensive lineman Richie Incognito, Denver cornerback Dre Bly and New York Giants receiver Plaxico Burress have all been fined at least $20,000 for criticizing officials either on the field or in media interviews. (Burress also was docked $25,000 for throwing a ball into the stands). And Cleveland tight end Kellen Winslow agreed to pay a $25,000 fine after expressing concern about the Browns' handling of his recent staph infection.

Allen broached the topic after being asked about a $5,000 fine he received for unnecessary roughness in the Vikings 48-41 loss to Chicago earlier this month. Here's an extended version of what he said:

"There comes a point where we have to be able to play this game. I know it's for our safety and that's [commissioner Roger Goodell's] job. I don't want to be in that position to make those calls either. But football is a violent game. Things are going to happen. Tempers are going to flare. People are going to disagree with the ref's call. They're going to say something. At some point where do you cross the line in taking away our God-given right to express our feelings and our emotions? The last time I checked we live in America and have freedom of speech. But not in the NFL."

Allen revealed he has been discussing the issue for "a few years now" with union officials and called such fines "cruel and unusual punishment." He went on to point out that players are well aware of the rules and consequences before they speak, but in essence argued for more relaxed enforcement.

Allen is right in a sense: The NFL should find a balance between conformity and human emotion when it comes to this issue. It's important to treat officials with respect, no matter how egregious a call might be, but it's also necessary to understand the pressure and intensity a player feels on the field during a game.

At the same time, Allen might not find much sympathy from people who -- like him -- work for a corporation that is concerned about its public image. Fair or otherwise, none of us have freedom of speech when it comes to denigrating employers in a public forum. That's part of working for someone else. Most companies would fire an employee if he or she went public, for example, with the animosity Winslow expressed against the Browns.

The employer has the upper hand in this situation as long as it's signing the paychecks.

I'm no fan of a team covering up damaging information, and as a reporter I'm all for Winslow bringing it to light. I understand Allen's frustration -- that, in essence, the NFL is attempting to beat down opposition and portray an artificial image of harmony. As cynical as it is to say, such "controversy" is part of why the game remains so popular. People are drawn to drama.

But controlling the message is a longstanding pillar of corporate America. It's hard to imagine the NFL changing its ways anytime soon.