It began with Michael Sam, and it ended with Richie Incognito. Taking the last five days together, it’s clear that the NFL will soon be making major changes to the way it does business away from the field.
In less than a month, Incognito will lobby for a second chance (technically, a third chance) to prove that he can behave like a responsible human being in the workplace. In less than three months, Sam will be hoping that his first chance isn’t undermined by a “distraction” caused by nothing illegal or inappropriate.
Ultimately, the league will have to construct policies and practices which ensure that men like Sam will be respected, and that men like Incognito will be dealt with long before creating a distraction far more real and far more damaging than the extra media attention that comes from being the first NFL team with an uncloseted gay player.
Ted Wells’ report recommends that the NFL create “new workplace conduct rules and guidelines that will help ensure that players respect each other as professionals and people.” Look for the league to quickly focus on these big-picture realities, finding a way to craft new policies, to teach them to players, and to hold them responsible for complying.
Ultimately, it’s about having mutual respect. Plenty of joking happens in plenty of workplaces. Fundamentally, however, coworkers are expected to display mutual respect. Even in lines of work that command mental and physical toughness, whether coal mining or law enforcement or military service, the men and women who serve together are expected to demonstrate mutual respect. If they don’t, they face consequences.
At some point, the locker room became frozen in time, as other workplaces evolved and modernized. Some players possibly received a pass because of the rough-and-tumble nature of football. Or maybe we’ve underestimated their ability to treat each other with decency and courtesy. Or maybe guys like Incognito are the product of two-plus decades of chronic excuse-making that happens the moment a young boy shows high athletic ability and the will to use his talents aggressively, on the field and off.
Really, is there any other American workplace where the question of whether an openly gay player would be welcome would be asked in 2014?
The days of “Richie being Richie” are over, for Richie and everyone else like him. The challenge for the NFL will be to convey that message clearly, and to establish meaningful tools for keeping every potential Richie from being Richie.
And players who feel harassed need to have a place to turn, even if that means the creation of an anonymous hotline that allows players like Jonathan Martin or concerned teammates to blow the whistle without fear of repercussion. Regardless of the precise details, the time has come for the NFL to ensure that, even if it is on the fringes, the Dolphins situation won’t repeat itself.
If discipline will be used to ensure that these situations don’t happen again, some sort of discipline may be necessary for those deemed to have engaged in harassment of Jonathan Martin and others. Incognito already has been suspended eight games (two unpaid); Mike Pouncey, John Jerry, and Jim Turner could be next.
Unless, of course, the NFL decides to implement culture change in a way far different than it did two years ago, when it caught one of 32 teams red-handed with a bounty system, and threw the book at the Saints.
Regardless of what happens to the various Dolphins players and coaches for what happened in the past, the bar is going to move a lot higher for everyone moving forward.