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Talks on new conduct policy hit snag

NEW YORK -- The NFL and the players' union met Tuesday to discuss possible changes to the league's personal conduct policy, but there appears to be at least some disagreement between the sides about the nature of those discussions.

"We stressed that due process for our players is not a privilege; it's a right," NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith told ESPN.com after leaving the four-hour meeting at league headquarters in Manhattan. "While the league might be concerned about its brand, the issue of due process and justice for our players is equally if not more important."

Smith attended the meeting with NFLPA president Eric Winston and executive council members Zak DeOssie and Jay Feely. The league's side of the table included commissioner Roger Goodell, New York Giants owner John Mara and NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent.

In something of an odd twist, Vincent was NFLPA president in 2007, when the current personal conduct policy was established.

Via Facebook on Tuesday afternoon, Vincent sought to remind the public that players' union involvement was part of that process and that the league is seeking to make it so again.

"I have a unique perspective informed by experiences not held by other individuals involved in the game today," the three-page, brochure-style statement says. "It is time to offer some context to that dialogue."

The current union leadership said it appreciates Vincent's effort, but that its preference is that the current discussions be official collective bargaining sessions so that any changes to the personal conduct policy would be written into the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players. Mara told ESPN shortly after leaving the meeting that there was some dispute between the sides as to which aspects of this the league is obligated to collectively bargain and which it is not.

The union also said it took issue with the perceived starting point of the discussions, which have grown out of the league's handling of recent high-profile discipline cases involving players such as Ray Rice and Greg Hardy. The NFLPA doesn't want this discussion to be a reaction to misconduct by a handful of players.

"We are concerned that the starting point would be a view that the players are perpetrators," Smith said. "The correct starting point is, 'What is a fair process for discipline and the right process to deal with issues like domestic violence from a prevention, intervention and education standpoint.' "

The league responded to that comment, which Smith later made public in an open letter to NFL players about Tuesday's meeting.

"As the players and their union recognized in 2007 when the Personal Conduct Policy was initially strengthened, misconduct by a few has a negative effect on everyone involved in the game," NFL executive vice president Jeff Pash said in a statement released by the league Tuesday evening. "We look forward to full discussions with the NFLPA on these issues and to implementing a revised policy that upholds the standards that our fans expect and deserve."

The league has said it hopes to unveil its new policy sometime prior to the Super Bowl. Sources on both sides have said they expect Goodell's role in the process to change, and the union would like the league to agree to a neutral arbitrator for appeals of any discipline Goodell hands down. They would like that change written into the collective bargaining agreement.

"The best outcomes we've had came out of bargaining," Smith said. "If you look at recent changes to the drug policy, the league agreeing to neutral arbitration in cases of on-field behavior and in drug cases, those have been positive outcomes from bargaining. As a former prosecutor, I certainly understand the importance of due process in the integrity of any investigation."

Smith said the two sides agreed to meet again soon to continue discussion on these issues.

And there remained other significant points of disagreement that must be resolved.

For example, the league indicated an interest in expanding use of the commissioner's exempt list that has been applied to Hardy and Adrian Peterson, both of whom are ineligible to play but are receiving their full weekly game checks while attempting to resolve legal issues.

The union position is that might be acceptable so long as it is what both the player involved and his team find it to be an equitable solution, potentially even before there is an actual player arrest. But the NFLPA is wary of the league imposing that outcome automatically on a player, particularly one who maintains his innocence.

Sources further said that the union believes Goodell's admitted mishandling of the Rice discipline might create the necessary leverage to remove him from his current role in that regard, where he determines the initial punishment for violators and handles any appeals.

A source said one point raised in that regard was since Goodell were willing to allow a neutral third party to determine Rice's appeal in such a high-profile case, that could be the norm for other players in cases that wouldn't result in the same level of public scrutiny.

Information from ESPN's Ed Werder was used in this report.