|Locker-room hazing to be top NFL offseason topic|
|Friday, January 31, 2014 9:53 PM|
By HOWARD FENDRICH
NEW YORK — For a chunk of the regular season, from the moment offensive lineman Jonathan Martin left the Miami Dolphins in late October, locker-room bullying was a toxic topic that rocked the NFL.
There were unseemly allegations and he-said, he-said accusations about what happened in Miami between Martin and suspended teammate Richie Incognito. There were tales told by other players around the league about being forced to pick up $10,000 dinner tabs.
And now, as the offseason begins when the Super Bowl between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks ends Sunday night, hazing — and where the line should be drawn between all-in-good-fun hijinks and inappropriate harassment — will once again be part of the conversation about professional football.
"That's just kind of the culture of football: You have rites of passage. That's kind of how the veterans see it. If you have veterans that want to take advantage of it, there might be a bad situation. But if you have good veterans, nothing crazy will happen," said Broncos defensive tackle Sione Fua, who played college football at Stanford with Martin. "I'm sure after everything that happened with Jonathan, the NFL will probably come out and maybe be more strict about it or make coaches be more, I guess, accountable, to really make sure their team isn't doing anything serious. We'll see what happens."
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell insists he'll be out front on the issue.
"Our No. 1 priority has to make sure that we have a workplace environment that's professional, recognizing that we have some unique circumstances. But we have to make sure that our players, (and) other employees, have that kind of professional workplace environment," Goodell said Friday, indicating it might be time for the league to issue new guidelines.
As things stand, the topic of workplace behavior is discussed with players at the league's annual rookie symposium and all 32 teams are supposed to cover it in training camp each year.
The NFL's player policy manual distributed during training camp outlines the league's personal conduct policy, which includes language about violent or threatening behavior between employees in or outside of the workplace.
"I've already begun discussions with outside parties. I've discussed it with the union. I've also met with several groups of players, individually and collectively, to talk about the circumstances. What needs to be done? What do we all want? And the No. 1 thing I hear — and the No. 1 (thing) that I believe is: We all have to get back to respect," Goodell continued. "It's respect for each other, respect for the game, respect for your organizations, respect for your opponents, the game officials."
Goodell noted that education and "possibly" policy change will be priorities.
"I am certainly supportive" of considering fresh guidelines for locker-room behavior," Chiefs' owner Clark Hunt said, calling it "a positive for the NFL and for the Kansas City Chiefs to really study that."
In a TV interview this week with former NFL head coach Tony Dungy, who's now an analyst for NBC, Martin said he was not the only Dolphins player who dealt with hazing. He also said racial, aggressive and sexually charged comments all played a role in his departure from the team.
"I have no problem with the normal hazing that you see in the NFL, get a haircut, stuff like that, little pranks," Martin said. "But of a personal, attacking nature, I don't think there's any place for that."
Incognito has said he regrets racist and profane language he used with Martin but added it stemmed from a culture of locker room "brotherhood," not bullying.
The NFL enlisted a lawyer, Ted Wells, to investigate what went on in Miami and issue a public report. The league is waiting until after its biggest game of the season to release those findings.
The NFL Players' Association is conducting its own inquiry but union head DeMaurice Smith said Martin declined to be interviewed.
Smith, often at odds with Goodell on all manner of issues, actually praised the NFL for its handling of the matter, contrasting it with the New Orleans Saints' bounty case.
"The manner in which the league has conducted this investigation has been in the manner that we believe is consistent and the right way to do it," Smith added. "This is one where there has been a tremendous level of cooperation between the players' union and the league on this issue because I believe we both have an interest in making sure that our workplaces are safe."
Some players on the Super Bowl teams said they expect the NFL to try to make sure this sort of thing does not arise again, because, as Broncos safety Michael Huff put it, "It was such a big topic, such a big deal."
"The more information they can give guys, the better. The more you can educate guys, the better," Seahawks special teamer Chris Maragos said. "I'm sure they'll take steps to continue to enhance whatever it is that is going on in the NFL and make sure that all the bases are covered."
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner contributed to this report.