Inside Slant: NFL culture must evolve

About 10 years ago, on a subzero day in the Midwest, I was conducting interviews in an NFL locker room when a group of veterans played a prank I had seen several times before. As soon as a highly regarded rookie left the room to eat lunch, the veterans grabbed the street clothes from his locker, dipped them in the cold tub and laid them carefully on a set of outdoor stairs leading to the parking lot.

I chuckled, knowing those clothes would be rock-hard, roughly in the shape of stairs, and unwearable by the time their owner found them. When he did, his reaction stunned me and those who watched the events unfold.

The rookie was mortified. I thought he would laugh. Instead, he was holding back tears. Rather than collect his clothes and find some team-issued sweats to wear, he walked inside, sat glumly in front of his locker and, seemingly in a trance, refused the entreaties of apologetic teammates. Later, he said he felt "violated."

That scene came to mind Friday as I read through details of "a pattern of harassment" faced by Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin, as described in a report released by NFL-appointed investigator Ted Wells. What I witnessed pales in comparison to the raw anecdotes Wells uncovered, but it speaks to what I think are some of the big takeaways from this episode.

Most notably: One person's prank can be another's personal torture, and the extreme culture of an NFL locker room heightens the possibility of the latter. I'm sure that those veterans, much like Martin's teammates, thought they were having tough-guy, two-way fun. Just 10 years ago, such behavior was written into the laws of the locker-room culture. Media coverage of that prank was limited to a couple of paragraphs with a light tone, and the rookie was considered inexperienced and too sensitive.

Now that the NFL has grown into a corporate monolith, with more eyes on its television product than any other entity and a CEO who took home $44 million in the 2012 fiscal year, the culture must evolve. Some players might want to protect their sanctuary. Others might be disgusted by what they view as uber-sensitivity. Regardless, they must recognize the trade-off necessary as their industry continues ascending a space of unprecedented revenues and social impact.

I like how recently retired NFL linebacker Scott Fujita put it on Twitter: "The NFL clubhouse is a WORKPLACE, whether you want to admit it or not. Perhaps it's time we all learn to grow up."

It's difficult to view the locker room as a corporate office, and even the Wells report notes that "the NFL is not an ordinary workplace." No one expects NFL players to take turns refilling the copier, but this episode should be a reminder to some and a stark recognition for the rest that there must be some boundaries of decency to follow.

Wells' tales of Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito and others bullying Martin, another player and an assistant athletic trainer of Japanese descent all illustrate an extreme result of what was effectively a boundary-less environment. The anecdotes are uncomfortable to read, even for someone who is well-versed in how football players interact with each other in a locker-room setting, and they add up to a victim who was contemplating suicide as recently as May 2013.

I realize Incognito's attorney is already disputing the accuracy of the report. I don't know if we'll ever have a complete understanding of what happened, what didn't and who intended what. But in the end, the NFL can't operate as a $10 billion industry on one hand and allow a Wild West workplace, replete with overt racist language and sexual threats, on the other.

The NFL almost certainly will react with heavy discipline against the Dolphins and some players, and it's a near-given the league will have a new workplace policy when the 2014 season begins. You can wring your hands at what you might view as political correctness or a legal-covering-of-rear-ends gone amok, but it's more than fair to hold employees of a multibillion industry accountable to some basic standards and to protect those who can't protect themselves.

Remember: One man's prank is another man's personal torture.

Quoting from the Wells report: "Professional football is a rough, contact sport played by men of exceptional size, speed, strength and athleticism. But even the largest, strongest and fleetest person may be driven to despair by bullying, taunting and constant insults."

Let this not be a moment for debating whether Martin's reaction was too sensitive, or whether the Wells report has misinterpreted and placed out of context how a locker room works. Let us instead accept that the NFL's growth mandates more formal boundaries for workplace behavior.