January 13, 2014 • Winning Hoops

Keep Bullying Out of Your Locker Rooms

by Kevin Hoffman, Managing Editor

Richie Incognito’s alleged bullying of teammate Jonathan Martin is not just a football issue — it’s a culture issue. To keep this from happening in your locker room, you must empower leaders who are committed to uniting your team the right way.

I’ve heard it called bullying, while others refer to it as hazing or team building. No matter how you define it, Incognito was wrong in the treatment of his Miami Dolphins teammate. That shouldn’t happen in the NFL, colleges, high schools or youth leagues. There is no place for it, and if you believe otherwise, it’s time to re-evaluate yourself as a coach.

There are two sides to this controversial issue. On one side, there are the innocent pranks and harmless initiation rituals that some call hazing. It’s having the newcomers carry the seniors’ equipment or pick up a lunch tab. Maybe it’s wrong, but in no way does it belong in the same class as bullying — the darker side of the issue.

The problem is some coaches see extreme hazing, or bullying, as a rite of passage. Consider the severity of Incognito’s actions and how you can possibly justify them as team building or bonding. Martin’s life was threatened, his family was threatened and racial epithets were used. How can one pass that off as friendship or leadership?

This must be taken seriously if you discover or suspect this behavior inside your locker room. We’ve witnessed the tragic consequences of bullying at our nation’s high schools. You’re responsible for not allowing hazing to escalate to such levels, and that starts by establishing strict rules and consequences for detrimental conduct.

That may not be easy for a number of reasons. You can’t reasonably watch over your team at all hours of the day, and you can’t be knowledgeable about everything that’s going on with your athletes off the court. The expectations on coaches are somewhat unrealistic, but you can still take steps to foster a positive environment for your players.

This is about team culture, and a large part of the equation is putting the right leaders in place. Look around at some of the most successful programs — professional or college — and behind each of them is a leader who has earned the respect of his or her teammates.

Directly or indirectly, you’re responsible for cultivating an environment that strongly opposes violence and racism. If coaches or captains are not skilled enough to come up with acceptable ways to motivate their teams, they’ve failed and have no business with their respective programs.

We still don’t know exactly what took place in the Miami Dolphins locker room. So while we can’t condemn one person for terrible things said or done, we can use this as a teachable moment for our athletes.

Regardless of how you do it, let it be known that these are not the actions of a respected leader. There are a plethora of strategies your captains can use to build your team into a family, and bullying is not one of them.

No exceptions.