Dahlberg: Bullying just the latest issue for NFL
By TIM DAHLBERG
Even by NFL standards, the bash Aldon Smith threw last year at his mountain home in California was a wild one.
By the time the party ended, two people had been shot and the San Francisco 49ers linebacker had been stabbed. Prosecutors would later bring assault weapons charges against Smith, who also faces DUI charges after being arrested in September in a separate incident.
No one was shot in the locker room of the Miami Dolphins, though there were threats of murder and mayhem that weren’t actually carried out. The way Richie Incognito talked was so frightening to teammate Jonathan Martin that he quit his job and left town on the first plane he could find.
That the NFL can be a violent place is no secret. The league has prospered greatly by glorifying it between the lines on Sunday, even as evidence mounts that players risk long-term damage to their health and their brains every time they take the field.
It’s a tough place to make a living because only the tough survive to play. Martin was tough enough to be trusted to open holes and block 300-pounders intent on doing damage to his quarterback, but apparently not tough enough to handle the abuse that Incognito threw his way.
Listen to Incognito defend himself and you have to wonder what world he lives in. In a society where the types of things he says are not tolerated, how can there be a place where they are encouraged?
“All this stuff coming out, it speaks to the culture of our locker room, it speaks to culture of our closeness, it speaks to the culture of our brotherhood,” Incognito said in a weekend interview with Fox Sports.
OK, we get it. They live in a different world than the rest of us, where the rules of normal society don’t always apply. They’re warriors on a mission for greatness, something that those who don’t play the game simply don’t understand.
It’s utter nonsense, of course. The locker room mentality of having your teammate’s back is all well and good, but just how that translates into racial slurs or texts about killing family members is incomprehensible. Certainly, athletes in other sports don’t take it to those levels.
If that’s the culture — and in Miami it certainly seems to have been — then it’s time to change that culture. Bullying and racism need to be tackled with the same —albeit belated — enthusiasm the NFL is now showing for concussion research.
There’s a difference between a tight locker room and a place where players act like animals just released from their cages. The rules of normal civilization should apply, even in an abnormal world where young men who have been idolized all their lives for what they can do with a football think they don’t.
The Dolphins took the field Monday night with an offensive line depleted by the absence of Martin and Incognito, and the results were predictable. Tampa Bay won its first game of the season, and the Dolphins running game was nearly non-existent with a franchise record-low 2 yards in 14 carries.
Equally predictable was their owner going on national television at halftime to declare how shocked he is about things that went on under his watch.
“The world has changed,” Stephen Ross said. “One thing that will not change: there will not be any racial slurs or harassing or bullying in that locker room and outside the locker room.”
That’s the kind of talk that should be coming from commissioner Roger Goodell, who has been strangely silent on the scandal. Goodell did appoint a New York lawyer as a special investigator to probe locker room misconduct, but so far seems content to let that play out before taking a stand.
That might be because the league is so hugely popular that a little locker room bullying won’t hurt it at all. The same is true for the growing controversy over the Redskins nickname, any number of player arrests, and reports about former players who can’t remember what team they played for or what they had for dinner the night before.
But for a commissioner who has talked about changing the culture of the league both with concussions and Bountygate, this might be the best opportunity to change one more culture that has no place in any league.
Stop the rookie hazings, and do away with the $15,000 dinner bills. Ban the N-word for good, no matter the color of the skin of the player who might use it.
And while you’re at it, give Incognito a year off without pay.
There’s not a lot that can be done in a brutally violent sport to keep players from being hurt on the field. But they shouldn’t be afraid among their own teammates, and they should understand that workplace protection applies to the NFL just like it does any company office.
NFL players don’t need to prove they’re tough in the locker room or at the dinner table with teammates. They do it week in and week out, sacrificing their bodies while knowing it can all come to an end on any play or any Sunday.
In a league grappling with a lot of issues, this doesn’t have to be one of them.
Reach Tim Dahlberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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