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USA TODAY
Jarrett Bell, jbell@usatoday.com, USA TODAY Sports

Several months away from the first training camp fight, the vibe was so upbeat regarding the NFL initiative to re-establish respect as the league meetings concluded Wednesday.

Good for the NFL. It is to be commended for taking a stand to define what it wants to be about -- beyond the soaring revenues and high TV ratings.

The meetings ended with the competition committee making a strong statement about sportsmanship that included a mandate to officials to penalize players (or coaches, for that matter) for using abusive language -- such as racial epithets or gay slurs -- on the field.

That it had come to the point rulemakers had to make an unprecedented statement is sad. Sportsmanship has eroded to a level that's spurred St. Louis Rams coach and competition committee member Jeff Fisher to declare a mission to bring it back to its highest point.

In any event, it is but one component of the Respect In Workplace initiative being formulated to also address the NFL culture.

"It's healthy," new Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell told USA TODAY Sports. "This is like a signature moment.

"Athletics have always been ever-evolving. It's a lot different landscape than when I started playing pee-wee football."

Sure, the fired-up strong safety is still encouraged to light up the slot receiver after he catches a pass on a crossing route over the middle -- within the strike zone, of course, without helmet-to-helmet contact -- but he is not to act like a fool in the process.

Last season, taunting penalties shot up, with 34 infractions in 2013 compared with nine in 2012. Troy Vincent, the recently promoted executive vice president who has been a key player in pursuing the respect initiative, says officials indicated they probably should have thrown 50 more flags for taunting.

"If we don't enforce and manage ... it gets out of control," Vincent said.

In November, umpire Roy Ellison was suspended for a game after having a verbal dust-up with Washington tackle Trent Williams, who was accused of disrespecting the official with a racial slur.

In October, the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal began to come to light after tackle Jonathan Martin left the team, fed up by treatment from Richie Incognito and other teammates.

Those were two vastly different cases, linked by the common element of the NFL environment.

Now comes the effect of league efforts to change the culture.

This won't stand a chance without a full buy-in from the coaches. Vincent said input from discussions with about 40 players in recent weeks reiterated coaches are the biggest influence on players and team culture.

If the flags start flying for language, coaches undoubtedly will frown on the real-game impact of 15-yard penalties.

Likewise, the manner in which coaches deal with officials will be important. If the coach berates an official for missing that obvious pass interference call, players might follow suit.

Still, I've wondered whether leaguewide workplace policies for the locker rooms are needed. What happened in Miami surely would not have gone down in Bill Belichick's locker room. While Dolphins coach Joe Philbin has pledged to spend more time in his locker room, that has not been an issue in a Pittsburgh Steelers locker room where Mike Tomlin's presence is often evident as he mingles with players.

Several coaches with locker rooms already perceived as good examples of professionalism indicated they support leaguewide standards because they are being pursued with the right spirit.

"Who says we haven't already bought in?" Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly said.

Kelly's locker room survived adversity after receiver Riley Cooper, who is white, was exposed on video using a racial slur as he threatened a security guard during a concert over the summer. The bond that Kelly quickly developed with his players during his first season was an undeniable factor in dealing with the crisis.

"I think it's one of those things you have to work on every day," Kelly told USA TODAY Sports. "You can never get to the point where you think you've got it handled. It's constant."

Or as Vincent sees it, part of the NFL's new DNA.

 

March 27, 2014

 

 
 

 

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