Commentary

The locker room is still a workplace

It's time for unofficial codes to be replaced by clear, safer, enforced policies

Originally Published: November 9, 2013
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

Not every locker room in the National Football League is like the one in Miami.

There aren't out-of-control thugs in every locker room who allegedly think it's appropriate to hold team meetings at strip clubs or fondle a woman with a golf club or say vile things about a teammate's sister. There aren't guys who think that belittling and demeaning a teammate – as opposed to supporting and befriending him – is acceptable behavior.

True professionals populate many of the locker rooms around the NFL. There are plenty of players who respect their craft and respect the men who forged the trail so that they now can make the ridiculous amount of money they make and play the sport they love.

But the mess in Miami has shown that the NFL must do a better job defining the workplace and establishing what constitutes acceptable and appropriate behavior, because somewhere along the way in Miami, there was a massive failure of leadership. In the locker room. In the front office. And in the coaching ranks.

Somewhere along the way it became OK for Richie Incognito to harass Jonathan Martin. That is definitely not OK. And it can never happen again.

The locker room is a place for bonding and ribbing and joking, but it is also a place for business. In the NFL, it is part of the workplace. It is not exempt from the laws that apply to Fortune 500 companies or mom-and-pop shops.

It is a workplace. Among the litany of questions that remain to be asked – and answered – in regards to the Martin-Incognito firebomb that has embarrassed and infuriated so many people in and around the league is who exactly is defining the workplace?

By the sound of things in Miami, the Dolphins players defined the workplace. Management allowed it. The players set the rules for the locker room. They determined what was fair. They allowed an environment to exist where Incognito could demean, belittle and insult Martin. In their minds, the locker room is their domain to be policed however they deem fit.

Except there is one massive problem with that: The locker room is the workplace.

"All hell is going to break loose," said a league source. "You have a right to feel safe. As an employer, we are supposed to provide you a safe place to work."

Even in the locker room the rules apply.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Martin
AP Photo/J Pat CarterAn unsafe feeling in his own locker room led to Jonathan Martin's indefinite leave of absence from Miami.

Only Martin didn't feel safe in the Dolphins locker room. He didn't feel comfortable. After a season and a half with Miami, Martin felt it was safer to flee the complex, leave the team and jeopardize his career than it was to keep enduring the abuse. Incredibly, he's been vilified for that decision and labeled soft while Dolphins players have propped up Incognito, either out of fear of retribution or concern that they, too, eventually will be implicated.

That is horribly, horribly wrong.

No one is going to walk away from this scandal unscathed. Not the players involved, some of whom we know, some of whom we don't. Not Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland, who reportedly suggested to Martin's agent, Rick Smith, that Martin should handle the situation by delivering a "punch" to Incognito. Not Miami coach Joe Philbin, who is accountable for every detail of his team. Not Miami owner Stephen Ross, who is ultimately responsible for his franchise.

And not even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. This is a workplace issue, and for an NFL team, the locker room constitutes the workplace.

It's time for the unwritten rules and code of the locker room to be replaced by firm policies that are understood and enforced. What sort of behavior is acceptable in the workplace, including in the locker room? What isn't? What constitutes harassment? Where is the line between teasing and bullying? What exactly is fair game? Spell it out.

This doesn't have to infringe upon the team building that goes on in locker rooms, but given what has happened in Miami, there need to be uniform rules that are understood, reviewed and enforced, once a year, twice a year, 10 times a year, whatever it takes.

The problem is this really hasn't been a priority for the league as a governing body or for the teams. Some coaches and general managers don't want to deal with compliance training -- a common corporate activity that ensures no employee can claim ignorance of the rules. 

The league hasn't devoted the financial resources to producing a uniform educational standard. They leave it up to the individual clubs, and only one, the New York Jets, has mandatory compliance training. The other 31 do not.

The NFL addresses the issue in its player policy manual, which it provides to every player during training camp. In it, there is this sentence: "Our Excellence in Workplace Conduct program is built upon our belief that all NFL players and prospective players have the right to work in a positive environment that is free from any and all forms of harassment, intimidation and discrimination."

Instead, maybe it should contain any number of passages from Bill Walsh's football bible, "Finding the Winning Edge." The league could start with this one from Walsh about hazing:

"The key point to remember is that hazing is dehumanizing. It does nothing to bond athletes to each other. Bonding between players occurs on the field when the veterans learn to trust and respect the abilities and commitment of the rookies."

That didn't happen in Miami. Just the opposite, in fact. And the league needs to ensure, however it must, that what happened to Martin never happens to one of its players again.

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