‘That is Our Locker Room’

June 3, 2014 by Jenny Vrentas

PHILADELPHIA — Ron Rivera was standing in the back of an auditorium at Penn’s Wharton School of Business on Saturday, wearing a Carolina Panthers dress shirt and a backpack.

It wasn’t his turn to speak yet at the NFL’s Career Development Symposium, an annual program for prospective head coaches and general managers. Chiefs coach Andy Reid and two league executives were leading a late-morning panel discussion on the topic du jour—respect at work—and the Panthers’ fourth-year head coach was listening. The conversation had shifted to the coach’s role in a players’ locker room, when NFL senior vice president Adolpho Birch spotted him. Suddenly, Rivera was making a passionate plea to the room of 60 would-be coaches and GMs.

“I’m just going to say this: bull—-,” Rivera said. “That locker room is our locker room. That’s our locker room. I have a vested interest in what goes on in that locker room. I learned that, though, after my second season.”

Rivera’s voice boomed from the back of the room over the next few minutes, rising as he continued to talk. As an NFL linebacker, he had firmly believed the locker room was the players’ sanctuary. As a head coach, he’s learned that the divide can’t exist in successful organizations. He shared his experience in the hopes of guiding future team leaders.

Sometimes players would find Rivera sitting at their lockers when they arrived to work in the morning. He believes his presence contributed to the Panthers’ turnaround.

The hazing scandal that unfolded in Miami last fall put a spotlight on locker room culture and asked a critical question of all coaches: How involved should they be in the locker room? In early April, Rivera was one of nearly two dozen coaches, players, owners and executives from the NFL and the Players Association—including Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith—at league headquarters discussing this very topic during a meeting about workplace standards.

“When we were sitting in that meeting with the Players Association, [the players] were talking about our locker room, our locker room, our locker room, our locker room,” Rivera told the room on Saturday. “Then somebody brings up Miami. The first thing they did is they threw the head coach under the bus. ‘Well, he had no idea what was going on in his locker room.’ So I said, ‘What do you mean, his locker room? This is our locker room, guys, our locker room.’ ”

Rivera's perspective on the locker room has evolved since his playing days in Chicago. (Berstein Associates/Getty Images)
Rivera’s perspective on the locker room has evolved since his playing days with Chicago. (Berstein Associates/Getty Images)

When Rivera says “our” locker room, he means it belongs to the players, the coaches, the team. His nine seasons as a player  had conditioned Rivera to believe coaches should keep out of the locker room. But after the 2012 season, his second as an NFL head coach and his second with a losing record, he took a group of Panthers players to dinner. As they spoke, he realized his absence in the locker room had created a disconnect.

“All of the sudden, I started hearing all the bitching and moaning,” Rivera recalled. “Oh, this happened, that happened. I’m thinking to myself, I didn’t see any of that. I didn’t see it because I wasn’t down there. That was my fault. Not theirs, my fault.”

So last offseason, Rivera started hanging out in the locker room. Sometimes players would find him sitting at their lockers when they arrived to work in the morning. Their conversations prompted him to change the team’s daily schedule, moving practice earlier in the day. Hearing linebacker Luke Kuechly, a budding superstar, describe soaking up veteran Chase Blackburn’s appetite to win (in everything, including a team outing to Charlotte Knights batting practice) has Rivera considering setting up a mentoring program between players during the regular season.

Some players still hush up when he comes around, “but I don’t give a crap,” Rivera said. There are many reasons why the Panthers went 12–4 and won the NFC South last season, but Rivera believes his presence in the locker room was one of them.

Rivera’s wisdom is part of the value of an event like the Career Development Symposium. Later in the afternoon, he was part of a panel discussing how to coach today’s players. The NFL set the stage, but the would-be head coaches and general managers in the room asked many of the questions, such as, “How do you balance an intense game with growing a culture of respect?” The message they got from Robert Gulliver, the NFL’s chief human resources officer, was clear: If you want to be considered during the next hiring cycle, you have to have ideas about creating a healthy workplace.

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“This is something that is very important to [owners],” Gulliver told the aspiring candidates. “They don’t want a repeat of some of the issues that we had last year. And when we have openings going forward, they’re going to want to have some level of baseline assurance that whomever they are talking to is going to be treating these issues seriously.”

Some things haven’t changed. Reid recalled that one of Bill Walsh’s sayings was to keep the locker room open. That timeless advice has become even more important in a league that has welcomed its first openly gay player, is more exposed to the public than ever through increased media exposure, both traditional and social, and most of all wants to avoid a repeat of what happened in Miami.

“There was some sort of miscommunication, something didn’t work right,” Rivera said of the Dolphins, after the session at Wharton. “As coaches it comes back to us, because we’ve got to know, we’ve got to make sure those things are corrected if there is something wrong. Coaches should be re-evaluating. If we’re not, we should be.”

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