The Norman Transcript

Community News Network

February 20, 2014

Is the NFL ready for Michael Sam?

Michael Sam makes his debut on the NFL stage this weekend at its annual scouting combine in Indianapolis. Is the league ready?

After the University of Missouri defensive lineman announced he is gay, many within the NFL publicly supported the All-American, who's expected to join a team following May's college draft. The league's top officials praised Sam for his honesty and courage. Players said Sam would be judged solely by his ability on the field. For a league that hasn't always displayed a progressive approach on social issues, the NFL showed enlightenment in its reaction to Sam coming out about his sexual orientation.

The incidents of harassment, racism, bullying and homophobia cited in last week's NFL-financed report on the Miami Dolphins' locker room culture, however, raise real questions about whether Sam would be as welcome as some have suggested.

Behind closed doors, the Dolphins clearly had a culture of intolerance. While examining what went wrong, lead investigator Ted Wells determined that offensive guard Richie Incognito was the ringleader in the harassment of teammate Jonathan Martin. Incognito and two other starting offensive linemen - clueless wingmen John Jerry and Mike Pouncey - also often used homophobic language to mock another young Dolphins lineman, who was unnamed in the report (the player has since been identified as Andrew McDonald, now a member of the Carolina Panthers).

 The issue isn't whether the blockheads targeted McDonald because he is homosexual (Incognito, according to the report, said McDonald wasn't actually believed to be gay). The problem for the NFL is that it can't continue to trumpet its safe workplace environment, in which players supposedly are free to be open about their sexual orientation, when homophobic insults are commonplace in even one locker room. And anyone who believes the Dolphins' situation couldn't occur elsewhere in the NFL is being naïve.

Truth is, there are guys just like Incognito and his minions in locker rooms across the NFL, current and former players say. They justify bullying teammates in an effort to "toughen them up," one former Redskins player told me recently. "They look at it like tradition. You know . . . just [good-natured] hazing. But sometimes it can go too far. . . . Sometimes guys say things they shouldn't say."

Team leaders are expected to set parameters for acceptable ribbing within the locker room. They're the ones empowered to mete out locker-room justice for on- and off-field mistakes, such as blowing assignments or being tardy for meetings. It's called self-policing. But some teams, players say, lack the strong leadership needed to keep troublemakers in check.

Unfortunately for Miami, Incognito was among the most respected players on the team. He was part of the club's leadership council, which helps explain why the Dolphins have seemed rudderless throughout this mess. When someone like Incognito - Hall of Famer Warren Sapp alleges Incognito once directed a racial slur at him during a game - sets the standard for acceptable player conduct, problems in the locker room are inevitable.

Incognito, Jerry and Pouncey also were empowered by the person in management with whom they worked most closely. Dolphins offensive line coach Jim Turner, among two team officials fired Wednesday, was aware McDonald was being harassed about being gay, Wells wrote. During the holiday season in 2012, Turner gave offensive linemen gift bags that included inflatable female dolls. McDonald received a male doll.

Top Dolphins officials, including Coach Joe Philbin, were unaware of the bullying incidents, according to the report, and tried to address the matter after Martin's departure from the team in late October. But the fact that Turner participated in the harassment indicates the need for more management oversight of both players and coaches on matters of tolerance.

And what is the responsibility of the head coach, and front office? Speaking to reporters in Indianapolis Thursday, Philbin said he was responsible for allowing the Dolphins' locker room environment to grow so toxic. "I'm going to look at the way we communicate, the way we educate, the way we talk to one another," he said. "I'm going to look at every avenue."

In advance of the scouting combine, the NFL office sent a memo to teams reminding them that the league prohibits discrimination against players based on a variety of factors, including sexual orientation. That's called a good first step. The next one should occur during the league's official orientation process for all drafted players.

At the rookie symposium they learn, among other things, about what's expected of them as professionals. More time should be spent on discussing the importance of tolerance. A synopsis of the Dolphins' report should be mandatory reading for rookies, followed by a Q-and-A session about it.

Having veterans take a refresher course on the importance of tolerance would be a good idea, too. Head coaches could discuss the subject in team meetings at the outset of training camp, and hold their assistants accountable if players fail to follow league-mandated policies.

For the NFL, the days of brushing off bullying in its ranks by saying boys will be boys are over. The league's decision-makers seem to know that - but the Dolphins' situation showed others still need to be told.



 

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Community News Network
  • linda-ronstadt.jpg Obama had crush on First Lady of Rock

    Linda Ronstadt remained composed as she walked up to claim her National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony Monday afternoon.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • Can black women have it all?

    In a powerful new essay for the National Journal, my friend Michel Martin makes a compelling case for why we need to continue the having-it-all conversation.

    July 29, 2014

  • Dangerous Darkies Logo.png Redskins not the only nickname to cause a stir

    Daniel Snyder has come under fire for refusing to change the mascot of his NFL team, the Washington Redskins. The Redskins, however, are far from being the only controversial mascot in sports history.  Here is a sampling of athletic teams from all areas of the sports world that were outside the norm.

    July 28, 2014 3 Photos

  • 'Rebel' mascot rising from the dead

    Students and alumni from a Richmond, Va.-area high school are seeking to revive the school's historic mascot, a Confederate soldier known as the "Rebel Man," spurring debate about the appropriateness of public school connections to the Civil War and its icons.

    July 28, 2014

  • Fast food comes to standstill in China

    The shortage of meat is the result of China's latest food scandal, in which a Shanghai supplier allegedly tackled the problem of expired meat by putting it in new packaging and shipping it to fast-food restaurants around the country

    July 28, 2014

  • wd saturday tobias .jpg Stranger’s generosity stuns Ohio veteran

    Vietnam War veteran David A. Tobias was overwhelmed recently when a fellow customer at an OfficeMax store near Ashtabula, Ohio paid for a computer he was purchasing.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 1.33.11 PM.png VIDEO: High-dive accident caught on tape

    A woman at a water park in Idaho leaped off a 22-foot high dive platform, then tried to pull herself back up with frightening results. Fortunately, she escaped with only a cut to her finger.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • CATS-DOGS281.jpg Where cats are more popular than dogs in the U.S.-and all over the world

    We all know there are only two types of people in the world: cat people and dog people. But data from market research firm Euromonitor suggest that these differences extend beyond individual preferences and to the realm of geopolitics: it turns out there are cat countries and dog countries, too.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • How spy agencies keep their 'toys' from law enforcement

    A little over a decade ago, federal prosecutors used keystroke logging software to steal the encryption password of an alleged New Jersey mobster, Nicodemo Scarfo Jr., so they could get evidence from his computer to be used at his trial.

    July 25, 2014

  • Russia's war on McDonald's takes aim at the Filet-o-Fish

    Russia said earlier this week that it had no intention of answering Western sanctions by making it harder for Western companies to conduct business in Russia.
    But all bets are off, apparently, when you threaten the Russian waistline.

    July 25, 2014