Hazing: Next enemy on NFL's legal horizon?

Frank Cooney, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

As the messy Miami Dolphins hazing or bullying drama continues to simmer under the intense heat of national and social media, NFL teams are circling their wagons in what could appear to be an initial defensive reaction against expected legal consequences.
After details became public of controversial interaction between Miami offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, the subject of hazing became a hot topic around the league.
Martin, a second-year tackle, left the team last week after an incident, initially portrayed as a prank, in the team cafeteria. Incognito, a ninth-year guard as well as one of the players involved in the incident and apparently the instigator in a series of abusive attacks on Martin, was suspended indefinitely Sunday by the Dolphins.
Based largely on the contents of one voicemail laced with foul and bigoted remarks by Incognito toward Martin, as well as information that Incognito may have been the designated enforcer to toughen up his young teammate, accusations of hazing and bullying were levied at both Incognito and the Miami Dolphins.
The voicemail, some tweets and reactions went viral in social media and the millisecond-minded, so-called mainstream media in its constant effort to be first.
After the situation festered for two days, long enough for the ramifications of this situation to become apparent to anybody in the NFL, The Sports Xchange tasked its correspondents to ask each team's coaches and players Wednesday -- their first day back at work after so-called "players day off" -- about their knowledge or opinion of hazing in the NFL.
Not surprisingly, coaches and administrators from every team claimed they either had no hazing, no knowledge of hazing or certainly had no issues of the magnitude experienced by the Dolphins.
At a time when it has become popular for the NFL and its teams to at least feign transparency, it seemed obvious that coaches, administrator and players all over league were already well aware of the litigious consequences still lying in wait on the sidelines of this insipid episode.
Ever the stand-up guy, Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen admitted hazing has changed significantly since he was a rookie with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2004, but still believes some form of it is important to establish rite of passage in a locker room that tries to meld the talents and personalities of tough, older veterans and suddenly-rich rookies.
"From a player's standpoint, I think some of the younger guys come in and there's a sense of entitlement, and you lose that work ethic, you lose that true veteran-led locker room sometimes," Allen said. "You got to know who you're dealing with. You can't treat everyone the same. You can't treat every rookie the same. Some guys are more sensitive than others, but it's a sign of respect."
That said, coaches and players from almost every team issued some statement of denial that their club engaged in such a ritual. The response was most pronounce by the Indianapolis Colts, led by head coach Chuck Pagano.
"Never been around it, fortunately," Pagano said. "I can't speak to anybody else's locker room except our own. We try to create an environment and a culture here based on our core values, which are trust, loyalty and respect. We got great veteran leaders in our locker room that take care of things. Our guys, we talk about serving and respecting one another. We're fortunate. We got a great locker room and a great building."
Added Colts outside linebacker Eric Walden: "Not our locker room. (We have) a no-nonsense policy. We don't feel like we have to do that to your younger players to get a point across. We might have them pay for a meal or something, but nothing to the extreme where you want to even consider bullying or whatever the case may be. ... Carrying helmets or sunflower seeds or Gatorade or whatever it may be. Nothing to the extreme where you have a person pulling a no-show, messing with their confidence or anything of that nature. I don't really get into that."
Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton harmonized by saying: "We're a family here and we take everybody in. That's our motto. We're a family. We put all our chips in and we just respect one another, no matter what it is. We all got to respect each other and it shows on the field."
Although Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said "we want encouragers, not discouragers," his own defensive linemen -- including Allen -- duct-taped defensive tackle Chase Baker to a goalpost and poured every liquid possible, including Pepto-Bismol, on him during training camp last year because the rookie refused to sing and dance. Baker took it in stride and laughed throughout the process.
"I got scolded for that, we're not allowed to do that anymore," Allen said.
New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin said that he planned to remind his players of the principles he wants stressed in his locker room, principles that do not include creating an uncomfortable work environment for anyone.
"As I mentioned the other day, the teamwork concept is the first thing in the door for us," Coughlin said. "We need everybody. We want everybody to be the very, very best football player that they can possibly be. When you say things like that, you need to back it up with the fact that the player has to be comfortable in his environment. He's not going to grow and develop if he isn't. So vigilance is a key issue."
Coughlin's comments were especially interesting after an incident two years ago in which defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and a group of Giants veterans dunked then-rookie cornerback Prince Amukamara into a cold tub during training camp while taunting him to "stand up for yourself." The video, captured and made public by punter Steve Weatherford, went viral and brought unwanted attention to the team.
"If the player had been asked to do something or forced to do something that he wasn't compatible with, he could have been hurt, and that would have been a major issue for us," Coughlin said. "The second thing, if you'll recall, is that I was very disappointed that there were some that thought it was funny when it obviously wasn't."
In Chicago, wide receiver Brandon Marshall on one hand said Bears coach Marc Trestman did "a great job of really going out of his way to make everyone feel comfortable from Day One," but was willing to admit witnessing forms of hazing with a previous team, the Denver Broncos.
"I've seen some things go on, guys getting their eyebrows shaved, heads getting shaved, but man I had a great group," he said. "(Former Broncos wide receiver) Rod Smith, really, a guy that still I look up to. Still a mentor to this day. Javon Walker. They asked me to do simple things. Stock up the room with sunflower seeds and occasionally bring in some donuts. I made sure I did those things, even carry his helmet off the practice field, so it won't escalate into something serious."
Marshall suggested that the problem is really societal.
"You take a little boy and a little girl; little boy falls down, the first thing we say as parents is get up, shake it off, you'll be OK. Don't cry,' "Marshall said. "When the little girl falls down, what do we say? 'It's going to be OK.' We validate their feelings. So right there, from that moment, we're teaching our men to mask their feelings, don't show their emotions. And it's that times 100 with football players. Can't show that you're hurt. Can't show any pain. So for a guy that comes in a locker room and shows a little vulnerability, that's a problem.
"So that's what I mean by the culture of the NFL. And that's what we have to change. What's going on in Miami goes on in every locker room; but it's time for us to start talking, maybe have group sessions where guys sit down and talk about what's going on off the field. What's going on in the building. And not mask everything."
Detroit coach Jim Schwartz echoed a prevalent theme, saying his players are allowed to do relatively minor things to new players, but nothing as bad as what seemingly occurred in Miami.
"We do allow stuff like guys carrying helmets in and guys fetching water and making runs for food before we go on away trips and stuff like that," he said. "I think that's part of guys sort of paying their dues in the NFL. We don't allow hazing the way you would consider hazing in training camp."
Schwartz stressed that all players, rookie and veterans like, are co-workers. He didn't want rookies to be intimidated by older players and he made a point to say "We are a $12 billion business."
Along with those teams already mentioned, others who responded that they either don't have or actually don't permit hazing included the New York Jets, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals, Cincinnati Bengals, Tennessee Titans, Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Contrasted against admissions of some form of hazing from players all over the league, something doesn't fit.
These denials by so many team officials seem to show either a lot of teams who don't know what really happens or, perhaps more on point, a lot who are aware that this is a "$12 billion business" and, like recent attempts to protect the league against legal ramifications of concussions, that hazing looms as the next enemy on the horizon.

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