Monday, June 19, 2000

Daily grind

Be nice to your bosses

By John Eckberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Once again, the Cincinnati Bengals have shown the world — well, the region, anyhow — that it is a team on the cutting edge of employer/employee relations.

        Or is it the sardonic edge of employer/employee relations?

        In a move to discourage negative comments by millionaire pro football players, the company wants players to sign a contract clause that will eliminate or limit bonus money to players who get caught talking bad about their bosses in front of, oh, 1.8 million people.

        In this case, it's the coaching staff or management that nobody on the team can criticize without losing bonus money — although a player's teammates still have bright bull's-eyes on their backs as far as management is concerned.

The clause is born
        The clause was created in response to Carl Pickens, a wide receiver who tried to get released from his contract last year by making brassy and negative statements about the Bengals chain of command.

        Bad words, he hoped, would do what lousy performance and his bad attitude could not: It might lead the Bengals to fire him and then he could take his cancerous ways to another clubhouse. Though the National Football League Players Association wants the league to reject contracts with the clause, the Bengals are not bending.

        “This shouldn't be a problem for anybody (else on the Bengals) because it doesn't happen very often,” said Katie Blackburn, executive vice president of the Bengals and a lawyer.

        “I think the rule applies to a lot of life, that you are better off generally speaking if you take the approach that many players take after the fact - that maybe a player would have been better off if he hadn't said something.”

The pink slip
        Beyond the land of Oz that is professional football in Cincinnati in the year 2000, the Pickens clause offers a pinch of workplace insight for anybody who has to cash a paycheck in the real world. If you dog your boss in public - or your boss's boss - expect a pink slip. Few workplaces grant blanket immunity to anybody stupid enough to impress his First Amendment right of expression on co-workers.

        Sure, you can speak your heart, just do it at home to your dog.

        Cincinnati lawyer Paul H. Tobias, chairman of the National Employee Rights Institute, said that, in general, the U.S. Constitution does not apply to the private workplace.

        “You could fire someone for saying "I don't like the company' or "I don't like the company president,'” he said.

        But there are exceptions.

        “I have a client where she complained about bad safety practices and she was fired,” he said. “One of the reasons given was that she was not getting along. But it is illegal under Ohio law to fire somebody who points out where safety and health problems exist.”

        The Pickens clause shows that even in the cloistered world of professional athletics, incessant whining around the water cooler - particularly when the cooler is a locker room crammed with microphones, television cameras and reporter notebooks - can be reduced when there is a price for the offender.

        The essence of the Pickens clause is as sound as timeless advice from Mom: If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.

        John Eckberg can be reached at or 768-8386.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at