By Mark Eckel, Player Engagement Insider
You know when you’re watching an NFL game from the stands, or on television, and you see a hit that draws a penalty and you wonder if the player is going to get fined or even suspended?
Merton Hanks does, too. And it’s up to the former San Francisco 49ers All-Pro safety to make that decision. It’s not an easy job, but as the league’s vice president of Operations it comes with the territory.
“I’m the commissioner designee for fines and suspensions,’’ Hanks said. “It is a difficult job, no question.’’
Hanks’ journey to the NFL wasn’t easy, either. He was a fifth-round pick out of Iowa by the 49ers in 1991; and ended up with 33 career interceptions and was voted to four Pro Bowls in his nine years in the league.
How much does it playing time help him now? A lot.
“Experience matters,’’ Hanks said. “You don’t just want the smartest guy in the room to take it on; you want a smart guy with experience.
“We try to follow a process, but every case has unique elements to it and we take those things into account as well. Fines or suspensions are difficult. You have to establish a level of consistency, certainly over my time here we’ve put in a number of safety-related rules, so you had to change the culture of what the NFL was 10 years ago to what it is now. It’s been difficult, no question about it.’’
Hanks joined the league office a few years after his playing career ended in 1999, his final year with the Seattle Seahawks.
“It was a few years after I retired, I was in a conversation with Keena Turner (former 49ers linebacker and current vice president of Football Affairs for the team), he had been talking with (former 49ers Hall of Fame head coach Bill Walsh that there was a position in the league office working with Gene Washington. Both Bill and Keena thought it was something I should look into, that it would be good for me and the league.’’
Hanks began working for Washington, the former vice president of Operations who had played wide receiver for the 49ers in the 1970s, and moved his way up through the ranks.
“I had two jobs in one when I started,’’ he said. “I worked in the consumer product department under Mark Holtzman, and I reported to Gene in football operations. I did a little bit of everything. It was quite an education.
“I came in as a senior manager, then moved into Football Operations full time. I took over as director when Gene retired four, five years ago. My job then was basically, anything that had to do with the NFL player on game day, ranging from relationships with the NFLPA (the NFL players union) to the colleges, equipment. Everything that had to do with the player on game day I was involved with.’’
Again he feels his playing experience helped.
“I think there are positions that most of America realizes that if you can hire smart people and put them in position to succeed they will get the job done,’’ Hanks said. “This is one of those positions, however, that you want experience. It helps tremendously. You have to be able to communicate to the current player. The current player has to understand and have a basic level of respect for you. You know what they’re going through; you’ve been there. My playing experience is a tremendous help in this position.’’
Hanks works alongside a few other former players in the Operations department, but he’d like to see more players join the league in every capacity.
“We have some,’’ Hanks said. “But there are not a lot of guys. I’d like to see more (former players), whether it’s in the office, at the club level, our entertainment arm, NFL Network, or other entities. And not just in front of the camera, behind the scenes, production roles, everything.
“The NFL is big business. We all know that. Do we have enough former players in roles? There is definitely room for more to help shepherd the future of the league.’’
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