November 25, 2013 • Coaching

Column: NFL bullying raises questions about locker room culture

It’s not often Coach & Athletic Director focuses on professional sports, but the story of Richie Incognito and the alleged bullying of his Miami Dolphins teammate Jonathan Martin is worth your attention. This could happen in any locker room.

This adds fuel to the ongoing discussion of whether hazing should be permitted in team sports. Let’s assume for a moment it’s all true. Assume Incognito used racial epithets and threatened Martin’s life. Assume Martin received voicemails and text messages threatening sexual assault of his sister. Assume it’s all fact. If you defend those actions, you have no place in coaching.

I’m not talking about defending Incognito. He may not be a model citizen, but I support his proverbial “day in court” before condemning him as a human being. Support his alleged actions? A rational person can’t frame that argument.

This isn’t hazing. I’ve long supported innocent pranks and harmless initiation rituals that may embarrass teammates and give everyone a laugh. The moment that crosses the line into assault or death threats, it’s no longer “hazing” — it’s bullying. And all across the nation we’ve witnessed the tragic consequences. Had Martin walked into the Dolphins locker room and shot his teammates, we wouldn’t debate this issue. We would instead ask, “Why didn’t someone intervene?”

I don’t want to hear New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle’s comments saying Martin “is a grown man” and needs to deal with it. A grown man doesn’t engage in childish antics, but rather respects teammates and shows leadership.  

I also don’t want to hear that this is the norm and Incognito has the players’ support. A new survey by ESPN shows 15% of NFL players would want Incognito on their teams. Does that sound like support?

I wondered whether this would happen in Peyton Manning’s locker room, since he’s regarded as one of the most respected players in the NFL. A Denver sports radio host asked just that of a few Broncos players, and here is what he wrote:

“One player that I spent a lengthy amount of time talking to was appalled by the specifics. He agreed with me that this is not something that would ever happen in the Broncos locker room. In fact, almost every player that I talked to agreed that there is no way that a situation could get this out of hand at Dove Valley and that there must have been a serious lack of leadership for something to go so far. The breaking point for this particular player seemed to be the racist comments. As tough as these men are, racism is not acceptable …”

“The player did note that the Broncos team captains would never let a player abuse another in this manner. Unfortunately, and unbelievably, Richie Incognito was a team captain.”

It’s precisely the specifics that make these allegations so unbelievable. Take a step back and look at this from a coach’s or athletic director’s point of view. Would you support this type of behavior, or would you intervene? It’s an important question, and the answer says a lot about your leadership abilities.

This should serve as a learning moment for your team captains. Do they lead like Peyton Manning or Richie Incognito? Do their teammates stand with them? Do 15% of your players want them on the team?

The blame doesn’t entirely rest on Incognito’s broad shoulders. We must point fingers at his teammates who enabled the behavior, and maybe that includes Martin. The issue here is team culture, and the lesson is cultivating an environment that strongly opposes violence and racism.

Coaches don’t always see the signs, so it’s hard to hang the blame on a coach or athletic administrator. But it’s important to at least use this moment to educate your athletes. There is a right way and a wrong way to foster team solidarity, and this is the latter.

I sincerely hope coaches out there don’t support this behavior. If you do, I think it’s time to reconsider your career path. A coach that stands behind hate speech, assault and threats of gang rape has no place in our schools. 

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