Rob Carr/Getty Images
Rob Carr/Getty Images

‘My Job Is Very, Very Different From Your Job’

The Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito situation, coupled with Michael Sam’s announcement, has put the NFL locker room culture under a spotlight. An Eagle takes us inside his workplace to better understand it

By Connor Barwin
Philadelphia Eagles

I get asked a lot about “locker room culture” these days. Ever since the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito bullying situation and the recent coming out of Michael Sam, it seems the media has become fascinated with understanding the inner workings of an NFL team. I’ve seen countless articles discussing how bullying or homosexuality is dealt with in an office setting and others comparing our workplace with the traditional American workplace. But let’s get something straight: My job is very, very different from your job.

While most of my friends and family have been climbing up the corporate ladder or grinding through medical school, I have had the distinct pleasure to set up office on a folding chair at One NovaCare Way, in the Eagles’ complex in South Philadelphia for the past year. Prior to that I was employed by the Houston Texans, and before that I was “employed” (let’s call it what it is) by the Cincinnati Bearcats football and basketball teams. Not counting a stint at Leo’s Coney Island—where I washed dishes and lit cheese on fire as a 16-year-old—the locker room is basically the only workplace I’ve ever known.

I am sure an MLB clubhouse has its perks, hockey players must be really fun to crush beers with, and the NBA is probably, well . . . an interesting place to work. (Can you imagine having a locker next to J.R. Swish?) But in my estimation, absolutely nothing compares to an NFL locker room. I played a lot of different sports growing up. None of them quite creates the brotherhood, the camaraderie, the fraternity that exists on a football team. Dating back to high school, two-a-day practices in 90-degree heat, lifting weights before school started, varsity jackets, all these things serve to create a bond that didn’t exist among other teams. We sacrificed together, we sweated together, we bled together. The times we had in the locker room back then were some of the greatest (albeit most juvenile) memories of my life. And to be honest, many of us haven’t grown up very much since.

Connor Barwin and Antonio Smith in the Texans locker room. (Courtesy of Connor Barwin)
Connor Barwin and Antonio Smith in the Texans locker room. (Courtesy of Connor Barwin)

What we end up with in the NFL is a room full of 65 of the most athletic, driven, and—let’s face it—reckless men in the country. Not many sane, rational individuals would voluntarily choose to play a game that threatens to take years off your life, possibly lead to CTE, and leave your joints feeling like rusty bicycle chains. What you do have, however, is one of the most diverse melting pots in the world. “Parks and Rec” has nothing on the character ensemble I work with every day. Cowboys from Texas locker next to rappers from L.A., guys blasting “Yeezus” on the stereo across from guys talking about Jesus with the chaplain, married guys with three kids next to married guys with three girlfriends.

Bill Maher has a funny bit in which he says, “Any institution where there’s no women around—like the Church, like football, like the Middle East, like fraternities—things go to s—.” I’d have to say there’s more than a little bit of truth in that joke. The NFL locker room is the ultimate boys club. Yes, we talk about horrendously inappropriate things. Yes, we make fun of each other. And yes, we have a tendency to take pranks a bit too far. (An Icy-Hot-in-the-helmet incident in 2011 cost one rookie a practice and earned me some time in coach Gary Kubiak’s doghouse.) But at the end of the day, this is not a normal job. Contracts are not guaranteed, career-altering injuries are commonplace, the average career lasts three-and-a-half years.

People wanted to get on Richard Sherman for being brash and aggressive in his post-game interview after the NFC championship game, but they sure enjoyed watching the bloodbath that took place on that field for 60 minutes between San Francisco and Seattle. One of the best games of the playoffs was one of the most brutal, physical games I saw all season. NaVorro Bowman had his leg snapped in half during a fumble recovery, and while he was writhing in pain on the ground, Marshawn Lynch came over and stole the ball out of his hands. First down Seattle. Crowd goes wild. Fans want to see stripped-down gladiators out on the field and buttoned-up businessmen in the locker room. You can’t always have it both ways.

With so much testosterone and so much ego in one room, the possibility of things going off the rails is very high. Like any workplace, however, the most important stabilizing force is good leadership, from an organizational level, a coaching level, and most importantly a player level. From my experience, the best teams are the ones that have strong leadership at each position. During the season I spend about eight hours a day with the other Eagles linebackers. We watch film together, eat together, lift together, practice together. For good or bad we are pretty much stuck with each other all day. Some position groups can fall apart in this proximity. Guys bitch about playing time, guys worry about rookies starting over them, guys fight with each other and the coaches. I’ll never forget what veteran fellow linebacker Mike Vrabel told me my rookie year, “You know you are on a good team when the vets are teaching the rookies how to take their jobs.” Not every locker room is the same. There are plenty of good guys in this league, and there are some not-so-good guys in this league. But I’m sure there are some firefighters who are a——- too. 

While I can concede that we are far from perfect, I personally have never encountered anything close to the hazing that I read about in the Wells report, the 144-page document that examined how the Miami locker room—particularly the offensive line—got off the rails. That kind of harassment has no place in football or any sport, and should not be tolerated by any organization. It’s 2014. No one should have to hear that kind of language. 

“Parks and Rec” has nothing on the character ensemble I work with every day. Cowboys from Texas, rappers from L.A., guys blasting “Yeezus” on the stereo across from guys talking Jesus with the chaplain.

The most successful position groups tend to be the ones with the best organization. When I was on the Texans the O-line and D-line were led by savvy veterans like Chris Myers and Shaun Cody. From day one of training camp the rules were set in place. Rookies carried veterans’ pads. Rookies stocked the position room with snacks and candy. Rookies embarrassed themselves in training camp skits. Systems of fines were put in place. (For example: $100 for farting during film study cost me a lot of money that year.) Outsiders might view these to be demeaning—imagine a Google employee getting fined for passing gas—but it laid a strict groundwork for how things were to be run. Late for a meeting? That’s a fine. Texting during dinner? A fine. Falling asleep during a film session? Big fine. Everyone is held accountable. Everyone shares the same goal: to win football games.

It’s no coincidence that those strictly run linemen groups were two of the most close-knit and successful position groups on the team. It sounds like a small thing, but when you can’t remember to turn your phone off in a meeting, maybe you won’t remember whether you’re supposed to drop into coverage on either the second or third receiver on the most important play of the game. When I got to the Eagles last year, I spoke to my former Texans teammate DeMeco Ryans and others about what went wrong with Philly’s disastrous 4-12 campaign in 2012. The team lacked cohesion, guys didn’t care about their teammates, guys were undisciplined. In other words the locker room went wrong. We began to put systems in place. Linebacker dinner every Thursday night became mandatory. Cell phones were put away. We broke bread together, got to know each other outside of football. Trust was earned. We started to form that bond.

Some of the friendships I’ve made over these past five years will stick with me for the rest of my life. Whether it’s offseason quail hunts in Nowhere, Oklahoma, with Jeff Zgonina or private jets to Vegas with Mario Williams, teams that enjoy each other off the field are more likely to enjoy success together on the field. Football is the epitome of a TEAM sport. When you get such a large group of people together that are seemingly so diverse and so different, it can be difficult to get everyone on the same page. Steven R. Covey once said, “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.” (I googled quotes on diversity).

DeMeco Ryans, Brent Celek and Connor Barwin, Philly’s captains for the January playoff game against the Saints. (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
DeMeco Ryans, Brent Celek and Connor Barwin, Philly’s captains for the January playoff game against the Saints. (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

I left Michael Sam out of this article up to this point on purpose. I hope by now you have a better understanding of the inner workings of an NFL locker room. If Michael Sam can play football, if he proves that he wants to be part of the TEAM, it doesn’t matter who he sleeps with at night. He will not only be accepted in an NFL locker room, he will make it stronger.

The most effective way to overcome bigotry is through personal relationships. My older brother, Joe, is gay. I think most guys in the NFL know someone or know someone who knows someone who’s gay. But for some guys in this league, Michael Sam will be the first openly gay man they have ever met. He has a great opportunity to change the stereotypes that many in this country associate with homosexuality. Football is a game where people from all walks of life come together for a common cause, and the game has the unique ability to serve as grounds for social progress. (You guys saw “Remember The Titans,” right?) Michael Sam’s biggest challenge won’t be running backs or offensive lineman. It will be the media. 

My workplace is not the typical American workplace. It’s far from perfect, but then again, so are we. And, maybe, so is this sport we play. When it’s all said and done, we all will miss the screaming fans, the big games, the packed stadiums, the adrenaline of competition. But the thing I hear the most from guys who retire is how much they miss the locker room. Something tells me that’s not going to change if I share mine with someone who just so happens to have a different sexual orientation.

Connor Barwin is an outside linebacker for the Eagles. He just completed his fifth season in the league.

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145 comments
jtcen231
jtcen231

If I had to pay $100 for every time I've farted in 2014, I would be in debt for close to about $200,000 right now...

DWJ08
DWJ08

Good read. I'll listen to an NFL player before I listen to office types, like myself, who have had HR manuals and sensitivity seminars shoved down our throats. As for this Incognito/Martin mess, there isn't a real right or wrong. Both of those guys seem to have their own issues.

TokyoRD
TokyoRD

I disagree with the premise that the job itself is justification for an immature and out of control work environment.  The only reason that the NFL locker room environment is that way is because the people running the business and writing the checks allow it to be that way.  The closest thing I have seen to this in my experience is on the trading floor of investment banks - it is still a boys club, and the boys tend to be rich and immature.  But as long as you are filling the cash register, the people running the business are content to let it happen.  Leadership and organizational culture can change this, but the organization needs to make the effort.

thephillyfanclub
thephillyfanclub

wow, what a bunch of winey little babies a lot of you commentors are, he is simply giving us perspective, he isnt complaining, grow up

dr_rock
dr_rock

I've always wondered about the amount of fines that happen on a weekly basis in the NFL locker rooms.  Where does that money go?  Are there rewards for good behavior?  It always seemed like a really weird concept to me.

WadeAdams
WadeAdams

You know what Connor barwin? A lot of people work for free at companies. The companies say, "bring me business" and then maybe I'll pay you. You're A Punk.

WadeAdams
WadeAdams

Boo hoo. Your job is different? Crybaby. You've never had a real job. Get a life dude. Terrible article. God these guys are so detached. Grow up.

jmattan
jmattan

But you have a job and that job is in the United States so, sorry, you are subject to the same workplace rules as the rest of us. Plus, my job is very, very different from your job. I work and interact with women every day and, as crazy as this may sound to you, I am still expected to behave like a grownup.

nmdunkel
nmdunkel

I think my HS buddy wrote something just like this, and as heavily edited. Not sure what the point is here, outside of "football locker rooms are different - you wouldn't understand". Learned nothing about a NFL locker room here, as the article is nothing but tired Friday Night Lights cliques. 


I find the article campy, somewhat condescending, and presumptuous. I don't care that he's a football player, hopefully SI can get a more candid, thoughtful narrative on the next go around. 



Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan
Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan

The NFL locker room is a place where “male bonding” fosters camaraderie and team building.It isn’t unique, but it is atypical.As such, we shouldn’t necessarily expect it to adhere to the same workplace rules which govern most of the rest of us.

One of my favorite albums, the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” includes one of my favorite songs, “The Last Resort.” (Its powerful lyrics lament the destruction of the environment brought about by the East to West migration across America.)For many NFL players the locker room—and its culture—is their last resort, where they can escape the spotlight, cameras and microphones, and be just ordinary guys instead of public figures.I don’t think NFL locker rooms should be sanitized from all foul language.NFL players deserve a place to retreat to where they can “talk about horrendously inappropriate things,” as Connor Barwin puts it, without fearing the tentacles of political correctness infiltrating every corner of their sanctuary.The NFL workplace and locker room culture are environments that should remain untouched and not destroyed by knee-jerk edicts—such as banning the “N-word” in the locker room, or fining its use on the field—resulting from an isolated case such as Incognito-Martin.

The biggest pearl of wisdom in Barwin’s MMQB contribution above is this:“The most effective way to overcome bigotry is through personal relationships.”The NFL locker room is the petri dish where those personal relationships are grown.

Roy_Munson
Roy_Munson

This is well-written but I disagree that it should be difficult to play a violent game like football and be a normal, decent person off the field.

Thousands of people have accomplished it

Rickapolis
Rickapolis

C'mon, tell the truth. Who sent out the email to all the posters (many with only a handful of total comments) that said things like 'Well written", Great read", or "Awesome piece". I mean. it's so obvious it is an organized campaign, like when the article criticizing Oklahoma State football was posted. Fifty first time posters attacked the writer for his personal life. So I ask again, who sent out the email?

RGod8855
RGod8855

I don't pretend to know Mr. Barwin's job environment, but he should in no way assume to know that the rules applying to other work environments cannot be applied to his. Team work environments, as football should be considered, are also part of military battalions, restaurant kitchens, manufacturing shifts, firefighters, and any other collection of workers that are using a team approach to accomplish a task. The fact that his is a sport, a rather brutal one at that, shouldn't eradicate the rules that require respect and tolerance for each co-worker. Thus, I find his excuse for acceptance of intolerant and demeaning behavior unacceptable and urge the NFL to monitor poor behavior just like any other work team would be monitored by any other employer when reports emerge involving worker abuse.

manapp99
manapp99

"My job is very, very different from your job."


This is true but I am sure a Marine would tell you the same thing yet they are forced to live by standards that are not enforced in the locker room. 


HorizontalGophers
HorizontalGophers

I don't think Sam will have any major problems in the NFL locker-room culture especially if he's drafted by a team than needs their's redecorated.

WR2 

NYC10023
NYC10023

You lost credibility to me in the third paragraph with the J.R.Swish comment. It was not humorous but snide and showed your true character. I agree with you. You are not mature. Unflattering for sure. I hope SI does not let me know any more about you.

billykidmans
billykidmans

Um, how do you actually have the proper life experience to claim that your profession is truly different from the professions that you've never worked in or experienced and only know second-hand...

Richard631
Richard631

Mr. Barwin:  


You can write.  I am hoping that you indeed wrote this yourself as opposed to "as told to".

So keep writing.   You have the size to keep editors at bay.


By the way, reading the comments for this article, it seems like everyone is treating this like a

supreme court decision and criticizing the content beyond all reason. By 'everyone' I mean

people who have never had the same job as yours.


Mathonwy
Mathonwy

"...many of us haven’t grown up very much since."

And herein lies the problem. The NFL is not a high school or college, it is a workplace covered by laws just like any other. Lift your weights, go to Vegas, and do all of the other things you describe but the Eagles are your employer and they are bound by these laws http://research.lawyers.com/pennsylvania/employment-law-in-pennsylvania.html just like all companies.

JayLandon64
JayLandon64

"Not many sane, rational individuals would voluntarily choose to play a game that threatens to take years off your life, possibly lead to CTE, and leave your joints feeling like rusty bicycle chains."


I tend to think that there are a LOT of people that would be more than willing to spend 5-10 years playing such a game FOR MILLIONS OF DOLLARS.  So if you want to get straight that your job is very different from mine, let's also get straight that many, many, many people in this country work JUST as hard as Mr. Barwin for a minute fraction of the pay he makes.

Arzu
Arzu

Awesome piece.  Honest, funny, open-hearted.  Thank you, Mr Barwin

EaglesPdx
EaglesPdx

Damn I'm glad Barwin's a Eagle.

mickeyphil
mickeyphil

How is something that only lasts 3.5 years a career?  It is great paying job but, even if you make enough to never work again, it is still not a career.  Your career is what you do after Football, for the next 60 years of your life.

DSM
DSM

He means well, but his experience of of environments is so limited that he has basis for claiming NFL locker rooms are unique.  The average worker, for example, spends long hours every day of the year in his or her workplace and for many years longer than an average NFL career.  Most also lack the protection of a union. 


As for testosterone, etc, there is plenty of that in the armed services; firehouses; police stations; trading floors; ERs; law firms; fishing boats; coal mines...

PhillyPenn
PhillyPenn

Personally, I don't give a crap what goes in the locker room.  I only care about what happens on the field.  

MartyJenkins
MartyJenkins

Unfortunately this is one educated, articulate guy that is speaking and there are 100s of others that are much less educated and understanding.  Hope Im wrong, but this guy is the top 1% of his team and the league most likely

BruceTrotman
BruceTrotman

@TokyoRD  I do not think he is "justifying" anything. he is describing the workplace in the NFL. Also, he says, to your point about organizational leadership: "Like any workplace, however, the most important stabilizing force is good leadership, from an organizational level, a coaching level, and most importantly a player level." 

ChrisHammond
ChrisHammond

@WadeAdams talk about jealousy get a life he was describing how things are in his job and giving perspectives on it for us. He has a real job one you can not do that requires sacrifices you would not suffer because you are a selfish bitter person. The best advise any adult can give to a child if find what you like then find a way to make a living at this He did that from you bitter post you have not and resent him for your failures. Some people refuse to receive information without adding thier hate like you

thephillyfanclub
thephillyfanclub

@Roy_Munson  jesus, he is talking about life INSIDE the locker room, something that none of us need to know about or care about, most of these players are decent people outside of the locker room, have you ever shared an inappropriate joke in your lifetime to a friend that no one else would ever here. My god how are these players getting so much scrutiny for literally BS ing amongst friends, what they say to each other is absolutely none of our business

JPM
JPM

@Buck2185  

So clever.  If anyone has the "right" to be labeled a Homophobe, it would be Connor Barwin.  But in one of the most macho environments on the planet, he's not.  What's your excuse?

ChrisHammond
ChrisHammond

@manapp99 are you sure have you been in a marine barrages?
 how about in a front line camp because I can tell yo the locker room is very similar to them. 


swh114
swh114

@manapp99 You think a Marine lives by the same rules and standards as the civilian world? The Military is essentially one giant locker room. Barwin talks being successful in battle is largely based on building personal camaraderie with your teammates. Every soldier would tell you the same thing.
Plus, Barwin did not condone any bad behavior, he simply asserts that to expect the same demeanor from someone who goes to work in football pads as someone who goes to work in a suit is crazy.
Anyone who has played a team sport, and especially a contact sport, know this.

scir91onYouTube
scir91onYouTube

@manapp99  try driving a taxi in new york city. you'll see very quickly how dangerous such a "simple" job is. same with those corner bodegas ready to be robbed at gunpoint in major cities. playing in the NFL is structured danger which is far different from the real dangers that come out of nowhere. 

Gapzilla
Gapzilla

@NYC10023 JR Swish is Smith's nickname. He's had it for awhile now. Does it offend you that his nickname is JR Swish, but he does anything but make shots?

BaldGuy72
BaldGuy72

@NYC10023 Can you educate me on the meaning behind the JR Swish comment?  I thought that was just the nickname of JR Smith.  I don't follow the NBA much so don't know much about JR Smith - is he controversial?  I Google'd him and didn't find much, just that he's tattoo'd from head to toe.  I'm just trying to understand your comment.

swh114
swh114

@billykidmans Well Billy, let me clear it up for you. I played Rugby at a high level in college. I now work in enterprise IT sales for a Fortune 100 company. It's different

Centennial
Centennial

@billykidmans  Unless you're a ten year old kid, trying to be clever and impress, I don't know how anyone on planet Earth could answer such a monstrously stupid question. Actually I don't know if anyone would want to answer it, or should even dignify it with any kind of response. 

Sportsfan18
Sportsfan18

@PhillyPenn    Well, if you really care about what happens on the field, then you would care about what happens in the locker room.


Did you not pick up on what some of the causes were two yrs ago for the Eagles?  Their locker room was lost and it helped lead them to a 4 and 12 season.


I don't know who you root for, but the same thing can happen to your team too.



Arzu
Arzu

@MartyJenkins I'm hoping this is becoming more the norm.  Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith immediately tweeted support for Michael Sam's announcement that he was gay.  I think a lot of NFL players are disgusted by the situation in Miami.  Fingers crossed, intelligence & open-minds prevail, even in the locker room

thephillyfanclub
thephillyfanclub

@ChrisHammond @WadeAdams  are you kidding me man, he was asked to write a piece about the culture of an NFL football locker room and thats what he did, he isn't crying about it, you're a complete moron

RGod8855
RGod8855

@Sportsfan18 @PhillyPenn  Sportsfan is right! PhillyPenn's attitude explains a lot in why the Eagles have not had a contender in a long time.

JDK171
JDK171

@thephillyfanclub @ChrisHammond@WadeAdams Don't give this troll the satisfaction.  "Franklin Adams" is the most r@cist dude I know, probably has an IQ of about 78, and has SERIOUS aging issues, particularly surrounding his male pattern baldness.


We're all losing our hair, bro... deal with your perceived shortcomings in a more constructive manner than pathetically attempting (and failing) to troll your betters.

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