By Connor Barwin
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.
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.
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).
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.