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February 21, 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.



 

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