Opinion: Teams at All Levels Can't Turn Blind Eye to Off-Field Interaction

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Copyright 2013 The Washington Times LLC
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The Washington Times
November 7, 2013 Thursday
C, SPORTS; Pg. 1
767 words
Teams can't turn blind eye to interaction off the field

It's hard to imagine too much good coming out of this case of the Dolphins' Richie Incognito and his widely reported bullying of teammate Jonathan Martin.

Incognito has been suspended by the Dolphins and might be done as an NFL player, so that's one good thing. Though unless he's tossed from the league for life, he could well be back.

Teams have an odd way of looking past previous transgressions if a player still has some ability. It explains why the late major league pitcher Steve Howe got repeated chances despite repeated drug offenses. Sports history is littered with examples of miscreants getting a chance to play another day.

The real good that may come out of this? Maybe teams will start to pay attention and such egregious cases of abuse will grind to a halt.

The reality and totality of what happened between Incognito and Martin may never be known. The voice mails and the videos that have been released are damning enough. So is Incognito's history. This is a guy who was suspended at two colleges (Nebraska, Oregon) and dismissed from the St. Louis Rams after a run-in with his head coach during a game. The Dolphins knew they weren't getting a choirboy when they signed him.

Did some coaches ask Incognito to try to toughen up Martin, as has been reported? That's not good for their job security if proven to be true.

While there are many unknowns, here is something that is almost certainly true: This is not the only case of extreme hazing or bullying inside a locker room. This one just went public. How many coaches at the collegiate and professional levels do you think asked this week, "Do we have any of that going on here?" Those who didn't ask should. They might be surprised by the answer.

Locker rooms are not like other work environments, so that argument isn't really valid. Though it is a job, it really isn't in many ways. It is extended play time with some exceptionally big paychecks. The best athletes are coddled early and while most manage to grow up to some degree, a few don't.

The nonathlete who conducts himself with all the proper decorum in a traditional workplace probably has a circle of friends with whom he's more loose, more likely to share an off-color joke with or tease or make the victim of a practical joke. That's what locker rooms are like.

To a certain point, that's just fine.

Making the rookie carry your bags? No big deal. Dressing them up in goofy costumes and making them go on a road trip in such attire? Good for a laugh. The Nationals' Gio Gonzalez posted a picture on his Twitter account during the 2012 season of the team doing just that. Even rookie superstars Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg were dressed up and smiling for the picture.

Having the high draft pick who just got a gigantic signing bonus buy a meal for the team? A worthwhile tradition.

The teasing that goes on among teammates and some of the language used might shock a few people. Most of it is totally harmless.

But let's go back to the nonathlete and the circle of friends. Pretty much every group seems to have at least one member who doesn't quite get where the line is drawn, who pushes too far and ventures into territory that ought to be off limits. You ask them to stop and usually they do. If they don't, they probably don't last too long in the circle of friends.

There's a fine line, we suppose, between teasing and hazing and abuse. Those with a reasonable mind ought to be able to tell the difference. Incognito clearly doesn't seem to have a reasonable mind. Despite his problems at Nebraska, Oregon and with the Rams, he still doesn't seem to get it.

Bullying, even among big, strong men who play football for a living, is unacceptable. It's why Incognito ought to be given a permanent pass out of the NFL and why he should be joined by any coaches who in any way condoned such behavior. We get that pro football is a "macho" world. That doesn't mean it has to be or should be a cruel world.

If a coach did indeed ask Incognito to try to toughen up Martin and is surprised by what happened, he's probably too dumb to be coaching anyway. Given Incognito's history, why would you even think of doing that?

Of course, given Incognito's history why would you even think of bringing him into your locker room anyway? But that's another issue altogether.

Let's hope coaches everywhere, at the high school, collegiate and professional levels, are having a lot of conversations this week and figuring out if they have a similar problem. If they do, let's hope they handle it swiftly. If they don't, let's hope they take steps to make sure they don't have one in the future.

November 7, 2013

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