Rich Schultz/Getty Images
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

How to Fix the Locker Room

Football takes young men from the most diverse backgrounds, throws them together and expects harmony. But that can’t happen without a stronger hand, higher standards and better training on tolerance

By Jason Avant,
Philadelphia Eagles

My wife and I have two young daughters, ages 1 and 3. Lately we’ve thought a lot about how we want to raise them and what it takes to be good parents. One thing is for sure: Once they get to a certain age, they’re going to want more freedom and more responsibility. But if they’re still under our roof, and if they haven’t shown themselves to be trustworthy, should we give them more authority and more freedom? We shouldn’t—not until they earn it.

The NFL is in that position right now. NFL players want freedom, want to do things on our own, want to be able to say: This is our locker room, we govern our own locker room. But have we proved that we’ve earned that?

The situation in Miami and other incidents around the league have compelled the NFL to enforce restrictions. Whatever the league adopts will be unpopular with a segment of players, to be sure. But I believe the NFL has no choice. Too many players have abused too many freedoms.

There were parts of the Wells report that shocked me, especially the language that was used openly among some of the guys. I’ve heard the ‘n’ word used among African Americans, and I even find that completely unacceptable. But I’ve never heard racial slurs used so openly and so freely. The joke about shooting black people was hard to digest, and I couldn’t believe the fines the Dolphins linemen handed out. Hazing, to some extent, happens everywhere. For example, with our team, rookies are in charge of buying chicken or barbeque before road trips. The total cost is something like $100.

Jason Avant. (Rich Kane/Icon SMI)
Jason Avant. (Rich Kane/Icon SMI)

The details in the Wells report seem like an atypical locker room, and I want to stress that not all NFL players are like that, and not all players in the Miami locker room are either. The majority of us behave appropriately, and enjoy representing our teams and our communities in the right way. But leaguewide, I do think there needs to be some kind of intervention.

About a month ago I met with commissioner Roger Goodell in Philadelphia, and we talked about ideas like this. We discussed the NFL culture, why it is the way it is, why we need change, and perhaps most importantly, why that change might be so difficult.

You have to rewind to the root of the problem. It begins before players enter the league.

I began playing football my sophomore year of high school in Chicago. I got pretty good pretty quickly, and by senior year I was the top recruit in the state of Illinois. That’s when I noticed people started treating me differently. One day I was just a regular person. Now I was kind of given this position of power. Students, staff members and teachers looked at me in a different way. They kind of winked at my mistakes, instead of trying to correct me. That’s part of the problem: too much empowerment without proving we’ve earned it. A lot of players aren’t used to being held accountable.

The other part is of the problem is a lack of education about diversity and tolerance.

I think back to my freshman year at Michigan, and what it’s like at pretty much any college program. In high school you’re with kids from the same town who are a lot like you. In college all of the sudden your locker room is filled with guys from every background—a guy from inner-city Bronx, another one from the backwoods of Iowa, a guy whose parents were nurturing, a guy with gang issues, a guy who is very religious. You put us all in the locker room and expect us to get along with each other. Yet there’s no orientation, and barely any discussion of it. That’s why a lot of times you see the black kids sitting on one end of the lunch room and the white kids on the other.

Then you get to the NFL. Same thing, except now you have a larger pool of guys from even more diverse backgrounds. The NFL rookie symposium covers almost everything, from how to talk to the media to how to handle your money to how to take care of your body. But the one thing that is not highlighted is education about culture and how to assimilate into a workplace with such a diverse demographic.

All together: Jason Avant and Zach Ertz pitch in to help free a stuck vehicle during practice in December. (Matt Rourke/AP)
Pulling together: Jason Avant and teammate Zach Ertz pitch in to help free a stuck vehicle during practice in December. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Plus, the rookie symposium is offered only to drafted players. What about everyone else? There needs to be mandatory workshops and programs. Maybe it’s at OTAs, or in training camp, but it has to be for everyone—whether it’s Peyton Manning or the bottom guy who is playing special teams and barely making the game-day roster. Education needs to be across the board, and consistent. That’s the only way we will respect it.

More on Locker Room Culture
The most important part of an NFL locker room is leadership. If there isn’t good leadership, one bad apple has potential to corrupt the bunch. In Philadelphia, our franchise has had some great leaders. The spirit of Brian Dawkins, Brian Westbrook and Troy Vincent live on. Their names are mentioned a lot in organizational meetings, and Dawkins can come speak to the team any time he wants. We also have an owner, Jeffrey Lurie, who is hands-on and cordial; he has lunch with some players, and always discusses the mindset and the standards that those earlier guys raised—and I think that standard is extremely important. Why? Look at what happened this season with one of our receivers, Riley Cooper, who was caught on video using the ‘n’ word at a concert. That incident had the potential to divide us. Instead, because of strong team leadership, we worked through the issue together; we forgave Riley and we were able to grow, both as a team and as individuals—Riley included.

As for the new legislation I mentioned earlier, maybe it’s harsher fines for players, or a code of conduct, or more supervision. I’m not quite sure what it will be, but I do know something is necessary.

Right now the NFL has an opportunity. We know this is a league that’s all about making money and all about winning, but here’s a chance for us to demonstrate that we’re more than that. The NFL can be more than just an employer. It can be a parent. With proper structure in place, the NFL can be a support system for someone in the same situation Jonathan Martin was in, and also provide a helping hand to those who hazed him. We can educate young men on the merits of tolerance, and also the value of holding ourselves to higher standards. It can help mold us into productive members of society when we leave this league. Aren’t those the values we want for our kids?

A 2006 fourth-round pick out of Michigan, Jason Avant has played wide receiver for eight seasons with the Eagles. He received the team’s Ed Block Courage Award in 2010.

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17 comments
Buck2185
Buck2185

I say, pump them all up with Adderral and watch them shoot their mouths off......

ReddickHarris
ReddickHarris

Well done, Jason Avant. This article could be/should be mandatory reading for all NFL employees.

I only have one suggestion...substitute the word respect for the word tolerance in this sentence...We can educate young men on the merits of tolerance (respect), and also the value of holding ourselves to higher standards.

With this kind of thinking, Mr. Avant, your girls will do just fine.

Thank you.

Redskins
Redskins

"My wife and I have two young daughters, ages 1 and 3. Lately we’ve thought a lot about how we want to raise them and what it takes to be good parents. One thing is for sure: Once they get to a certain age, they’re going to want more freedom and more responsibility. But if they’re still under our roof, and if they haven’t shown themselves to be trustworthy, should we give them more authority and more freedom? We shouldn’t—not until they earn it."

What makes you think you and your wife are capable of raising your children? Setting the rules and teaching them right from wrong? By your own words the Teams cannot govern themselves. They lack the requisite skills and motivation so the NFL, the League, Big Daddy, has to step in.

OK, so the government needs to step-in and make sure you are properly raising your kids. By your own words, you clearly are not able to do so without help from Big Daddy!

ApolloOne
ApolloOne

I've never given Jason Avant a second thought before, but after reading this I'm a big fan. Hopefully his message can help make real men out of some of these players who are merely overgrown boys.


On a side note, if I'm Jeffrey Lurie I'm having kittens seeing that picture of my players pulling a vehicle!

Don12
Don12

Finally a player who isn't afraid to speak about accountability and behavior of NFL players in the same sentence! The solution does start at the top Mr. Goodell, first by taking on the owners and mandating tutoring programs for ALL players from the undrafted rookie to the established veteran. Next the owners need to express to the head coaches exactly what behavior is intolerable and the penalties that will be imposed if not followed. Thirdly, the coaches need control  in the locker room as well as the field and expressing ignorance is unacceptable. Finally, the players need to police themselves and welcome a zero tolerance standard. Until the new expectations are in place at the top level it will never trickle down to college and/or high school were much of the damaging behavior begins.

VanVandewalker
VanVandewalker

Jason Avant, you are a credit to the NFL as well as the human race. Your article should be required reading for people in all walks of life. You are indeed, a Michigan Man!

fjeremyfreeman
fjeremyfreeman

As a long time Eagles fan, this is the sort of leadership and integrity that we have come to expect from Mr Avant.  A true role model to players of any sport, and an articulate one at that.  Great writing, easily the most insightful piece I have read on NFL locker room culture as a result of the Wells report.


Thanks for sharing!

AnnetteCataldi
AnnetteCataldi

jason what an amazing essay on the cause of the problem in miami and how to fix it--philly is lucky to have you on their team--you have just raised my opinion of NFL tenfold--i can see why goodell sought your input--hopefully he takes your advice!

Heistiv
Heistiv

It takes courage to be self critical, and greater courage to offer solutions. Jason has done both. Philly is fortunate to have his and Foles character-centered leadership in their locker room. As a fan, it makes me root for them more.

sc1ssors
sc1ssors

This message is particularly meaningful coming from a guy like Avant who knows what it means to "earn it." However, the article does raise some nagging questions, like where the Eagles rookies go to get a football-team-worth of barbeque for ~$100.

manzanaytu
manzanaytu

Mr. Avant,

I applaud you!  I am not an NFL fan, this article was passed to me by my very proud husband. "Something the NFL can be proud of."

 I must say I am so very impressed with your, 1) eloquence 2)your perspective ,3) and your passion!  Your commitment to raising the bar and making people (players in this case) more accountable, was refreshing to hear, "We need to earn it."  That is a lesson that everyone should know and earn, nothing comes to you "just because."  

Thank you for your article,

Olivia Brown

A new Fan to Jason Avant!

smhtriple7
smhtriple7

@Redskins I think you went a little off the path there red,with your big daddy rant.You seem confused to what he is implying.How you came to the conclusion that he feels the government should step in to help raise his children is,to, say the least,out in left field.Hello,McFly,is anyone in their ?

Cranky24/7
Cranky24/7

in Canada we had a politician who famously said that he was "entitled to his entitlements" - very good to see Mr. Avant call out that type of attitude.

Buck2185
Buck2185

@sc1ssors Have you ever noticed there are not a lot of stray dogs running around Philly? Can you say "101 ways to Wok your dog"???....

CoreyBrown1
CoreyBrown1

@sc1ssors  true that. 50 plus ppl, with all those big guys on the D and O Lines? Maybe he ment 100 bucks PER rookie! LOL. Love Jason though, and what hes trying to say though. 

CMFJ
CMFJ

@CoreyBrown1 @sc1ssors  


He may mean $100/rookie.  Or it could be that a rookie is buying for a particular position group.

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