Winslow case could have bigger implications

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

The recent settlement between the Cleveland Browns and Kellen Winslow Jr. marked a victory for the Pro Bowl tight end, but it also could signal a turning point regarding players' rights to speak freely in NFL locker rooms.

The league and its 32 teams police a lot of things with their players.

Some would argue the league and its 32 teams police everything with their players.

But the Browns' attempt to force Winslow not to talk about his staph infection went too far in the eyes of league arbitrators. It should have been his choice, and once the players' union obtained proof through text messages sent to Winslow by the team to keep quiet, the Browns lost all leverage and swiftly settled before the case got worse.

"From an union standpoint, this was drawing a line in the sand that it's not going to commit to teams' censor for player speech," a union source said Saturday night. "There were text messages from PR [public relations]. The team was basically telling the player not to reveal he has staph and that was, in part, what the player was upset about. Kellen was worried about his health and the team was worried about its image."

As evidenced by this information, the Browns mishandled the situation from the start. "Staph" is a taboo word in Cleveland because there have been at least six known cases the past few years. The team dislikes talking about its troubles containing it, and with Winslow, the Browns hid his staph infection from teammates in an effort to keep this latest case under wraps.

That was an awful move.

By the time Winslow got out of the hospital and suffered a tough loss to the Washington Redskins, the perfect storm was already brewing. Winslow felt strongly about setting the record straight so he did, despite the fact it was against the Browns' wishes. That led to last week's series of events that included a one-game suspension and a national media firestorm.

The Winslow case brought forth a polarizing argument last week. Does a player have the right to criticize an organization if he feels his personal health is being put at risk?

Based on the result, the answer is yes. The $25,000 fine was a minor compromise for the union to complete the settlement.

"He shouldn't have been fined at all, but they [the Browns] needed something to walk out with," the union source said.

Often NFL players shy away from controversial issues. Some want to keep the peace, while others want to avoid fines.

Winslow threw caution to the wind in this case and stood firm in his beliefs, and his case signaled progress for other players to have the choice to do the same.