Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano talking to quarterback Josh Freeman at a recent game against the New Orleans Saints. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Would the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their head coach Greg Schiano leak confidential information that implied one of their own players was on drugs as a way to deflect attention from another wretched season? Schiano says “absolutely not.” But the facts point in the direction of him or his staff, and the facts are ugly as hell.
Quarterback Josh Freeman is officially in “stage one” of the NFL’s drug testing program. That means he voluntarily entered. He did so as a way to show league officials that the one time he tested positive for a banned substance, a prescription medication for ADHD, it was a one-time mistake. By electing for stage one, Freeman’s involvement is supposed to be confidential. So confidential in fact that even his team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is not supposed to know that he had entered the program. It means he had been tested forty-six times over the last eighteen months for every possible substance and passed every time.
But Josh Freeman, in high-profile fashion, is on the outs in Tampa Bay. After a dazzling beginning to his career, Freeman has withered in recent years. Following a 0-3 start in which he didn’t complete 50 percent of his passes, Freeman’s relationship with head coach Schiano would be best described as “cyanogenic.” But it is hard to think of any quarterback, or any human who could mesh with the tyrannical, browbeating former Rutgers coach.
Schiano is the sort of person who thinks heading up a football team means you need to act like an amalgam of General Patton and Chet from Weird Science. He is not only barely holding onto his job. He is barely holding onto a team that has had multiple meetings about how much they hate his style, his play-calling and pretty much everything short of his haircut. Benching Freeman is a way to deflect attention from his own epic failure as coach and be given time to break in Freeman’s backup, a raw rookie third-round draft pick named Mike Glennon.
After his benching, Freeman demanded a trade, and the team clearly wants to oblige and get as much as they can in return. But alas, there is a tension. While upper management wants to maximize Freeman’s value, those in tenuous positions of power on the Bucs—like the gobsmacking twenty-six assistant coaches on staff—have an incentive to make Josh Freeman to look as cancerous as possible. Someone connected to the team released information to ESPN’s “NFL insider” Chris Mortensen, who, in a manner far closer to Judith Miller than Glenn Greenwald, dutifully reported the leak that Freeman was in “stage one” of the drug program, while leaving out that he was reporting confidential information or the nature of the drugs involved. Immediately the rumors started to swirl and the sliming was underway.
This is exactly why sports unions take such pains—despite all the slings and arrows from the media, politicians and owners that they are “soft” on drugs—to protect players from abuses in how drug testing is administered. It is why they fight for ironclad confidentiality clauses for first offenders and an independent appeals process. They do it to protect players from having their reputations tarred from false positives. But even more significantly, they simply do not trust those in management to not use drug testing as a form of leverage against players. In other words, they believe that, left to their own devices, owners and coaches will treat players the way the Bucs are treating Josh Freeman.
I was able to get through to NFL Player’s Association executive director DeMaurice Smith after he visited Tampa Bay in an already scheduled visit as part of the routine rounds of the union. He said, “We always protect player rights with vigilance. A breach of confidentiality is one of those instances where the league should agree with us on a zero tolerance policy.” Smith is clearly challenging NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to treat this as a serious league violation. Goodell, who has liked to present himself as a Eastwood-esque sheriff when dealing with player misconduct, should treat this with the same seriousness. The smart money says he will not. When it comes to players, Goodell is Eastwood. When it comes to disciplining management, he is more like the empty chair.
As for Josh Freeman, he had to issue a hastily composed comment last night addressing the rumors that he was in some sort of rehab. He describes the vague leaking of confidential information as a case of being “publicly violated.” People should read his full statement. This is someone who has been grievously wronged.
Whether or not you are a fan of Tampa Bay, the Bucs or even football, you should care about this issue. Drug testing and a complete absence of what can now quaintly be called “privacy” has become normalized in the American workplace. The idea that someone with a union contract that guarantees some basic protections can have his confidentiality treated like toilet paper is alarming. The idea that the Bucs could get away with this on the largest possible media platform is enraging. The idea that Greg Schiano can plead ignorance and only say, “I know what I’ve done, and I’m 100% comfortable with my behavior” and when pressed, “I’m not at liberty to comment on that,” is a joke. He should be saying that he will find out who violated his player’s privacy and discipline them. Anything short of that are grounds for dismissal. If the Bucs owners won’t do it, the league should step in. If the league won’t step in, an already angry Bucs team should just walk out. The Tampa Bay organization under Schiano has become the worst kind of laughingstock: the kind that isn’t funny.
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