Commentary

Don't lose crucial parts of 'the code'

Leaders should set right tone for NFL teams to thrive as men, players

Updated: February 17, 2014, 12:21 PM ET
By Mark Schlereth | ESPN

I've had a lifelong love affair with football. I was fortunate to be able to live out my childhood dreams. To play a game for a living and now cover the game I love and support my family, it's a dream come true. The game has meant a lot to me.

But for such an amazingly popular sport, there are aspects of it that I think many fans don't fully understand, and the Richie Incognito story has shed a negative light on some of those misunderstood parts of playing football and being on a football team.

Among the many things that I loved about playing football was sitting around the locker room with teammates and poking fun at each other with sophomoric slams, each one more ridiculous than the next.

But let me make this perfectly clear: I despise the stories of bullying that came out of Miami.

It breaks my heart that the good-natured ribbing that is a part of every locker room could get to a point that a young man felt his only option was to walk away from the game that he's worked his entire life to play.

I have great empathy for Jonathan Martin. I don't know all the inner workings of the Miami Dolphins locker room, but I do know the pain of being different, the sadness that accompanies not fitting in and the hopeless feeling of having no one to turn to, because it's part of my story as well.

My parents lovingly passed down the lessons of their lives so that my sister, Jana, and I may also teach our children the foundational principles of a life well lived. There was something else my father passed on, quite unintentionally, I'm sure: learning disabilities. My father is dyslexic, and so am I.

It was the first day of seventh grade, and one of my teachers was explaining the course requirements.

"Every day I will randomly select a student to stand in front of the class and read a current event from the newspaper," he said. That's when the panic set in.

I would have struggled reading Dr. Seuss's "Green Eggs and Ham." Read from the paper? I had zero shot. Every day walking into that class was more miserable than the next; the anxiety of knowing my name might be next on the docket made it almost impossible to place one foot in front of the other. As I'd pass through the threshold, I would pray, "Heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus, I beg you, please don't let this be the day my name is called. Amen." For several weeks, my prayers were answered, but then came that fateful day.

"Schlereth, it's your turn to read," he said.

"No thank you," I replied.

"Get up and read, now!," he barked.

"Please, please, no," I begged.

"Get up now or fail," he stated with conviction.

I arose, heart leaping from my shirt, cheeks so flushed they would make a rose wilt with jealousy. I walked to the front of the room. I stood for what seemed like an eternity but in reality was less than a minute and painfully tried to sound out words that were way above my pay grade. With each passing second and every stammered-upon syllable, the snickers from the class grew louder, until my teacher had heard enough.

"Sit down! You're stupid!" he proclaimed.

The class was bursting at the seams with laughter and a heartbroken boy slumped in his chair, tears streaming down his cheeks, puddling in pools of embarrassment on the table beneath him.

Have you ever been scared or embarrassed to the point of paralysis? Where do you turn when you feel you have nowhere to turn? In whom do you confide when it seems everyone is against you? What is the "correct" response in those situations? I had nowhere to turn and no fellow students or other teachers to support me or help me. I couldn't even turn to my parents because I felt like I had failed them. I was alone.

In a different setting, but one with many similarities, Jonathan Martin walked out. Looking back, I wish I'd had the courage to do the same. Maybe that would have brought the attention that my situation needed for things to be set straight.

The Code

I've heard a lot of current and former football players evoke "the code" in regard to Martin's departure from his team.

• Handle your business like a man
• Don't air the team's dirty laundry to the public
• Stand up for yourself
• Punch him in the nose
• Don't run out on your teammates

Many have said Martin has broken "the code" and will never be welcomed back in the locker room. What about "the code" that says we love one another? We play hard for one another? We set aside our differences and bond together as one?

What about that fraternity, that code?

[+] EnlargeJoe Gibbs
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesFormer Redskins coach Joe Gibbs set the tone for the team to be good men as well as players.

The code of championship locker rooms, in which men sacrifice for each other, in which they consider others more important than themselves, in which they embrace -- not ostracize -- each other. That's the locker room I grew up in and the code I adhere to, and my football career is filled with examples of reaching out, and looking out, for teammates.

I was drafted in the 10th round, the 263rd pick of the 1989 draft by the Washington Redskins. I was a no-name, oft-injured center/guard from the University of Idaho. My college career was a mess, so riddled with injury that the university had retired me as a junior. "That's enough," they said and threw in the white towel on my childhood dream. After months of pleading (whining), they acquiesced and agreed to allow me to play my senior season. I was completely off the NFL radar.

Luckily for me, I had a teammate who wasn't. Marvin Washington was a 6-foot-6, 270-pound defensive end and was chiseled from granite, and we were brothers. Every few days "Dirty," as he was known to his teammates, would call me to let me know when the next pro team would be at the facility to work him out. My phone rang 15-20 times, and 15-20 times I showed up to Dirty's workouts, introducing myself and asked for an opportunity. Marvin's generosity -- that's how I became a Skin!

Joe Gibbs was the head coach, and he set the culture of our locker room from the very first meeting of the year. As a rookie, I had a vision of what my first NFL meeting would be like. I was expecting fire and brimstone, some real Football 101, but what I got was the truth from a quiet, regal man.

"Welcome to the 1989 season, men," he said. "Today I'd like to give you some priorities for your life ...

1. Your relationship with God.

2. Your relationship with your family and teammates.

3. Being the best football player you can be.

"I guarantee you, if the first two priorities are not in line, you can't be your best on the field," Gibbs said. "Let's make it a great year. Break out with your position coaches."

That was it, and the tone was set.

Self-policing

Professional sports are filled with unwritten rules of behavior, and that is fine, but there are lines that shouldn't get crossed in following those rules. If they do get crossed, well, there should be enough men with character and integrity to stand up and put an end to it.

This is what bothers me the most about the Miami Dolphins. Where were the men of character? Where were the men of integrity who would intercede on behalf of a hurting teammate, a member of the family?

As a rookie, money wasn't extorted from me to pay for the veterans' dinner because the veterans knew I wasn't making much. I was asked on occasion to grab donuts or breakfast sandwiches, but, more often than not, one of the vets would slide some cash in my direction to ease the pain.

[+] EnlargeSchlereth
AP PhotoAs a rookie on the Redskins, if Mark Schlereth bought the veterans dinner, one of them would slip him some money.

The "Hogs" was the nickname of the legendary offensive line in Washington. The mainstays were Jeff Bostic, Russ Grimm, Joe Jacoby and Don Warren. After practice, the Hogs wandered off to a toolshed in the corner of the property to play cards, tell stories and have a few beers. The gathering in the shed was known as "The 5 O'clock Club," and there was always an open invitation for me. But I chose not to attend, not because I was opposed, but because I wanted to go home, play with the kids and have dinner as a family. Even though I didn't attend the 5 O'clock Club, I was still a member of the Hogs. I was a part of the group, never ostracized for not showing up, always loved!

Singing your school's fight song at lunch or dinner during training camp is standard operating procedure. Call it hazing, if you wish, but it's more a harmless rite of passage. If your singing stinks, you get booed off center stage. Sing well and you become a rock star replete with a chorus of off-key background vocalists made up of vets from your alma mater. As a rookie, I was told by the Boss Hog himself, Grimm, I wasn't allowed to sing for anyone but him. So when respected 10-year vet and special-teams captain Monte Coleman asked me to sing at dinner and Russ wasn't present, I explained what I had been told. Monte took a cursory glance around the cafeteria, didn't see Russ and said, "OK, sit down." That was it! I wasn't chastised, cussed at or taped to the goalposts. I was just allowed to finish my dinner.

In my seventh season, I found myself on a bus in Japan as a member of the Denver Broncos. It was my first season in Denver and our first road trip of the preseason. As we sat in traffic, there was the usual joking and poking fun that accompanies those moments.

In the seats behind me sat two defensive players, and they were flipping some grief to a young player, typical stuff. At some point, the good-natured, innocuous ribbing became personal and out of bounds, so I turned and said "Enough," they responded with a few choice words for me and I made it clear in no uncertain terms that they crossed a line and I wasn't putting up with it. They mumbled a few protests under their breaths, but it was over and the bus rolled slowly to its destination, again under the din of good-natured fun that accompanies grown men who play a childhood game for a living. A few minutes later, I glanced back at the young player I had stood up for -- no words were exchanged, just a tacit nod of the head, as if to say, "Thanks. I appreciate the help." I replied in kind, and it's was never brought up again.

So there is one story, among many I have, of some self-policing, some enforcing of a code that builds teams rather than tearing them apart. Those guys didn't freak out at my intervention or suggestion that they lay off. I wasn't attacking their manhood. I was reminding them of the line you don't cross. They got a little carried away, but they knew I was right. We moved on with no trouble. Nothing lingered or simmered because it was addressed on the spot. I'm no hero and it probably would have resolved itself, but I was taught to stand up for my team. I was taught "the code" -- the championship code.

But, in light of the Incognito/Martin story, people would have you believe that you have to be some raving lunatic to play in the NFL, wound so tightly that the slightest spark will insight an insatiable inferno. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I'm 48 years old now and about the least confrontational person you'll ever meet. My fists have never found purchase on the flesh of another man's face. I've never been in a fight. If someone falls short of their obligation to our family, I have my wife call to rectify the situation because it makes me so uncomfortable. Yet I succeeded for many years in the trenches of the NFL, in which there are several confrontations on every play. It can be done -- through focus, effort and discipline, not through unbridled rage and hair-trigger emotional outbursts.

Off the field, I coached my son's baseball teams, my daughter's soccer teams and went to every dance recital. I know these actions are a better representation of the typical NFL journey and life than the stories out of Miami.

I'm left with this conclusion about the Dolphins organization from the coaching staff on down:

They were either complicit, incompetent or, worse, both.

Former All-Pro guard Mark Schlereth joined ESPN in 2002 as an analyst for NFL 2Night, now NFL Live. He brings 12 years of NFL playing experience to the role. Schlereth has also filled in on numerous ESPN radio shows.

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