Commentary

Doors to locker rooms must be open

In wake of Dolphins bullying scandal, coaches must be welcome in players' realm

Originally Published: June 3, 2014
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

Ron Rivera had no idea.

His first two seasons as the Carolina Panthers head coach, Rivera stayed out of the locker room. He was a former player, an All-America linebacker at Cal and a second-round draft pick in 1984 by the Chicago Bears, for whom he played nine seasons and won a Super Bowl. Rivera knew the code: No coaches in the locker room.

But after the Panthers went 6-10 in 2011 and then 7-9 in 2012, Rivera took a group of approximately seven players out to dinner. He wanted to know what they thought about the team, the culture and the program he was trying to build.

"All of a sudden, I start hearing all the bitching and moaning," Rivera said. "This happened. That happened. I'm thinking, 'I didn't see any of that.' But I didn't see it because I wasn't down there, and that was my fault, not theirs."

That's when it clicked for Rivera. That's when he realized the code from the 1980s and 1990s was not going to work in the modern-day NFL. Players now come into the league more pampered. Technology has advanced. Society has evolved.

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsPanthers coach Ron Rivera says spending time with players in the locker room has helped build an environment of trust in Carolina.

It is just different now.

The prevailing feeling among the coaches and front-office executives I've talked to is that the best way to avoid another Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin imbroglio such as the one that engulfed the Miami Dolphins last season is for teams to be more transparent. All doors need to be open. Coaches must be welcome in the locker room, and their office doors must remain open.

There must be a healthy dialogue and exchange of information, whether through a player relations representative or a veteran leadership committee, so that players can give head coaches feedback without fear of retribution.

As the great Bill Walsh said: Keep that locker room open.

On Monday, league officials were in Atlanta kicking off a 32-team tour to push an NFL initiative to develop and enhance training programs to educate players and coaches about proper locker room behavior and workplace conduct. NFL human resources chief Robert Gulliver plans to meet personally or send delegates to every team to discuss changes in policy and relevant issues.

Last month, officials from the NFL Players Association met with NFL officials in New York. Among the guests were Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and Rivera. The topic: workplace conduct.

According to one attendee, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith maintained that the locker room was the players' domain and should be free of coaches' intrusions.

Rivera vehemently disagreed.

"I'm just going to say this: It's bulls---," Rivera said while speaking at the NFL Career Development Symposium over the weekend at the University of Pennsylvania.

"I have a vested interest in what goes on in that locker room. ... When we were sitting in this meeting with the players association, they kept talking about, 'Our locker room, our locker room, our locker room,' and somebody brings up Miami, and the first thing they did was they threw the head coach under the bus. Well, he had no idea what was going on in his locker room.

"So I said, 'What do you mean his locker room? This is our locker room.'"

As well it should be.

[+] EnlargeBill Walsh
AP PhotoHall of Fame coach Bill Walsh championed an open-door policy in the San Francisco 49ers' locker room.

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross also spoke at the symposium. Afterward, the self-described absentee owner said the Dolphins are trying to change their culture by educating players and staff about the impact of social media and technology. Ross said it is too early to see if the changes they are trying to implement are taking effect. Changing a culture takes time.

"This is one tough business," Ross said. "It's nothing like anything else, and so you learn a lot by just being a part of it and seeing what's transpired, and certainly you learn from your problems and not your successes."

Players today respect authenticity. They respect honesty. They respect competence. And they want to be told what they can expect, what the expectations are of them and how to best meet those expectations.

Developing a culture of mutual respect and trust is the goal. The Seattle Seahawks under head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have been able to do that. Andy Reid has been able to do that in Kansas City.

But not all head coaches and programs are the same.

"I try to give not a lot of rules," Reid said, "but I try to give four things: Eliminate distractions, create energy, fear nothing, attack everything. That covers the gamut. That gets you to a place in life and the locker room. To do those, you have to be honest ... [and] you have to have trust."

Ultimately, that is what Rivera was able to have after he forced himself to endure the ribbing players gave him when he entered the locker room and showed that he cared. It is no accident that the Panthers finished 12-4 last season and won the NFC South for the first time in Rivera's tenure.

"We hear things now," Rivera said. "We've developed it, and there's a little bit more trust."

Things inevitably will slip through the cracks. But teams that are committed to doing what Bill Walsh always preached -- opening the locker room -- will be better positioned to avoid another scenario such as the one in Miami, and that's a good thing.

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