The NFL’s Wake-Up Calls
The timing of Michael Sam’s announcement and—five days later—the release of the Ted Wells report made one thing crystal clear: It’s time to professionalize pro football. Plus, America’s new non-hero and more as NFL eyes shift to Indy
Before we all get totally depressed about the NFL’s South Beach Locker Room Reality Show, something good to start your week: T.J. Oshie.
Did you notice what Oshie did Saturday, seconds after he scored his fourth goal of the shootout against Russia—in the eighth round of the shootout, against some of the best scorers on the planet—to give the United States a 3-2 victory in a game that wasn’t for a medal but had the intensity of the seventh game of the Stanley Cup? He slid the puck through Russian goalie Sergei Bobrovsky’s legs for the winner, whirled, raised his arms in jubilation, and then immediately pointed to his own goalie, Jonathan Quick. NBC could show that 17 more times, and I’d watch it 17 times.
“What was that about?’’ I asked Oshie on Sunday.
“Well,’’ Oshie said from Russia, “it was a two-man team there. I have to put the puck in the net, and he has to stop it from going in the net. Not only that, but he’s the guy who’s taking every shot, against some of the best players in the world, and he’s been doing it all game long, with the game on the line all the time. But I pointed to him because it was a team effort, and he did his job as well or better than any of us. We were all proud of him.”
How do you not root for Oshie and his mates? Especially on a weekend like this one, after reading the 144 pages from hell that was the Ted Wells report? Much more with Oshie, and on the hockey game, later in the column. In a me-first world, and after a disturbing couple of sports days, we can all use some good news.
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What the NFL needs to do now.
It’s time for Roger Goodell to earn his $44 million—if that absurd sum is possible for anyone running any sports venture to earn. It’s time for him to professionalize professional football.
“Commissioner,” highly respected Philadelphia wide receiver Jason Avant told Goodell in a recent meeting, “we need you to set standards. We need you to make it black and white. We need standards, and if we don’t meet them, we shouldn’t be here.”
In the past 60 days, Goodell, I’m told, has met with more than 30 players, asking them how to make the locker room a more tolerant, more professional place. Players like Avant have told Goodell what he needs to hear. (Avant confirmed to me Sunday night that he asked Goodell to set standards for the players in the league, so publicly they’re not all painted with the Incognito brush.) Vice president of player engagement Troy Vincent and the czar of human resources for the NFL, Robert Gulliver, have also been involved in the meetings. They knew bad things were coming in the Ted Wells report, and the bad things came … worse than many people in the league thought. In the end, Richie Incognito and his perverse and persistent bullying and sister-raping jokes and goonishness gone mad will do a favor for the league. All the gone-too-far frat boys in locker rooms around the league can thank Incognito now, because when the NFL adopts a locker-room and meeting-room behavior policy, it’s going to be for adults. Will veterans be able to make rookies sing their college fight songs? Yes. Will vets be able to run kangaroo courts and fine peers $100 for especially stinky farts? Yes. Beyond that, vets won’t be allowed to humiliate young players the way it happened in Miami.
A shame! The corporatization of the NFL!
I say good. And good riddance to the bad-cop stuff—or whatever disgusting crap—Incognito and John Jerry and Mike Pouncey were advocating in the past couple of years.
And while they’re at it, the NFL is going to put in a seminar for players and coaches and staff on sexual-orientation training. Call it the Michael Sam Seminar. It’s coming, and it should. Homosexuality is not going away, and there’s no reason why any gay player in any NFL locker room should be subject to one-tenth of what Jonathan Martin had to endure over the past two years.
The Sam declaration and the Ted Wells report came within six days of each other, and the reverberations will be felt for years. Multiple NFL committees will meet March 3 and 4 to discuss league business, and certainly a new behavior policy will discussed. When the 32 owners and coaches and their front office staff convene for the annual spring meetings in Orlando March 24-28, more discussions will be had.
Vincent shared with me Sunday his ideas for professionalism in the NFL workplace. Players should have a code of conduct perhaps not identical to but certainly in the same league with other members of a football organization—scouts, marketers, administrative help, executives, coaches. “I think you’ll see workplace training conducted for the football side,’’ Vincent said. “The kind of respect-at-work training that happens on the second floor, in the business offices, needs to happen on the first floor, with the players.” Vincent said he hopes the league can establish a working group of coaches, players, club officials and league executives—men and women—to discuss issues and solutions. Vincent wants teams to begin workshop training for players and other club employees. Those workshops should included sexual orientation, diversity, domestic violence and professionalism in the workplace, among other things.
Speaking of Sam: On Friday, former NFL player Wade Davis—who came out after retiring—held a workshop of sorts for some NFL employees, including Goodell, in New York. He talked about the importance of a team atmosphere to deal with Sam and any other future gay player, because in some cases the team will be the best support group the player has.
“This is the 21st century athlete we’re dealing with now,” Vincent said. “It has been a progression over the past few years. And now we’re at a moment in time where we have to do something as a league, and we will.”
Get ready for several weeks (months?) of internal and external debate around the NFL over how to professionalize the players’ workplace. You’re going to hear a lot of that, and you should, after Sam announced he is gay and the scathing Ted Wells report told the world what a soulless place an NFL locker room can be. “Can” being the operative word, because I do not believe there are many, if any, other locker rooms or portions of locker rooms that go so over the top as the Incognito-led Miami offensive-line group went.
Quick takes on what I thought was a thorough job by Wells and the nine attorneys from his Manhattan law firm, with only one major flaw:
• Roger Goodell has to suspend Incognito, and give more than a slap on the wrist to partners-in-intimidation John Jerry and Mike Pouncey. Wells reported that Incognito was called before Goodell in August 2012 to discuss three untoward off-field incidents Incognito had been involved in. “Although Commissioner Goodell ultimately decided not to impose any additional discipline on Incognito at that time,” the report said, “it was made clear to Incognito, both in person and in follow-up correspondence, that his recent history of alleged misconduct reflected a troubling pattern. Incognito was told to ensure that his future behavior met the standards of the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy, at the risk of immediate disciplinary action.” So, you’d say, isn’t half a season of keeping Incognito out of play—he missed the second half of the 2013 season, suspended by the Dolphins before the club knew everything that was in Wells’ report—enough? No. Incognito was docked only two of 17 paychecks in 2013. To me, that’s not nearly sufficient for the mayhem this story caused the Dolphins, and the sport.
• Miami will have to fire offensive line coach Jim Turner, who the report says was complicit in the atmosphere of bullying. How can owner Steve Ross say he’s serious about a respectful work environment and keep employing a coach who went along with Incognito’s incessant bullying of two of his linemen, going so far as to give a male blow-up doll to one player whom the others chided as being gay? And who pressured Jonathan Martin, when he’d left the team, with a string of text messages to publicly exonerate his “friend,” Incognito?
• Martin should have talked to Joe Philbin. Martinmight be a fish out of water in the NFL and certainly deserves empathy for having to deal with 18 months of mental beatdowns from veterans like Incognito. But he should have told his head coach what was going on. If I have to choose between snitching and being driven stark mad, I’ll take snitching any day. Martin needed to be an adult and tell Philbin. In the report, Wells wrote: “Martin believed that going to his coaches or other authority figures meant risking ostracism or even retaliation from his fellow linemen. At the same time, we strongly believe that if Martin had reported the harassment to a coach or front office executive (or even his agent), the team might have been able to address his issues before it was too late. There is no question that the better course of action would have been for Martin to report the abuse.” Absolutely.
• For Philbin not to know anything definitive about the crisis with Martin, he had to be either tone deaf or not paying enough attention to his team. Head coaches have their locker-room sources. Some I’ve known, like Bill Parcells and Jimmy Johnson, spent lots of time with players, making sure their fingers were on the pulse of their teams. I thought the Wells report went too easy on Philbin, saying he was unaware of the plight of Martin, an unidentified player and an assistant trainer, all of whom were being harassed. “We find that Head Coach Joe Philbin was not aware of the mistreatment of Martin, Player A or the Assistant Trainer. After interviewing Coach Philbin at length, we were impressed with his commitment to promoting integrity and accountability throughout the Dolphins organization—a point echoed by many players,” the report said. How can Philbin have been in that building 15 hours a day, at least, and not known anything? And how can Wells accept that this was a fine job by Philbin, and he was some sort of Boy Scout troop leader promoting wonderful citizenship? I do understand he asked Turner about what was going on with his players, and Turner told him everything was fine. But what caused Philbin to ask Turner? Obviously his antennae were up. Philbin, whom I find to be a good man, still should know better, and this had better be a very good lesson for him, or his time in the head coach’s chair is going to be short.
For the NFL, Sam and this report are two firecrackers designed to wake up anyone who can’t see that the league needs to have its collective head examined. It’s time, and Goodell can’t let this moment get away.