Whether those discussions translate into rules and safeguards designed to mend the league’s image is something players will be closely monitoring.
“I do think there will be some changes, but I don’t think it will be as drastic as some people think as far as changing the culture,” said Chad Greenway, Vikings linebacker and union representative. “Obviously, they want us to try and be as respectful as possible of each other. Sort of like kindergarten when they tell you, ‘Keep your hands to yourself.’ I guess that’s where we’re at now.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners are wrestling with obvious pressure from a public relations standpoint as well as the logistical challenges of implementing meaningful changes.
Last month’s 144-page Ted Wells report, a no-holds-barred description of workplace misconduct with the Miami Dolphins, is the primary catalyst. But the ongoing investigation of bigotry allegations against Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer, the increased attention on the widespread use of the N-word by NFL players and the impending arrival of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam as the league’s first openly gay player also are factors.
“That’s probably over my head, as far as what the NFL owners are going to do,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “We’ll go to meetings here, and I’m sure all that stuff will be discussed. It’s important to the league that the players and everybody involved represent themselves in a professional manner. It’s like anything else. When there’s an issue, then usually they have seminars on how you should behave and things like that.”
The well-publicized Wells report revealed a consistent and aggressive pattern of harassment directed by Dolphins guard Richie Incognito against tackle Jonathan Martin, who ended up leaving the team and contemplating suicide on two occasions, according to the report.
The report also said fellow offensive linemen John Jerry and Mike Pouncey participated in the harassment against Martin, another offensive lineman and an assistant trainer. Long before the report and its unseemly details and unsavory language were released, the initial reaction in the Vikings locker room was lighthearted, with players joking back and forth with reporters that they felt “bullied” by another player who was within earshot.
“We’ve never had a situation like this arise in our locker room, so I think it became an ongoing joke about behavior,” Greenway said. “It never seemed possible that it could become that big of an issue because we’d never seen anything like what was in that report.”
Greenway said he thinks most NFL locker rooms are policed better by team leaders who wouldn’t permit harassment of this magnitude.
“I know as a team leader I would have stepped up and said something,” Greenway said. “If this had happened in our locker room, I think multiple people would have stepped up and been like, ‘Enough,’ or ‘Back off,’ or done something. I think that’s part of our duty as teammates. And certainly, with [former coach] Leslie Frazier’s staff, someone would have stepped in.”
Greenway also said Martin should have “voiced his concerns” much earlier. Vikings fullback Jerome Felton seconded that.
“Normally, guys have a problem with each other, you settle it,” Felton said. “I’m not saying you have to fight. You figure out a way to work it out between you.
“[Martin] could have stood up to [Incognito] without having to fight him and it would have been solved. … Sometimes, you just have to stand up for yourself. Not saying you have to smack a guy or punch him in the nose, but there is a certain time where you have to say, ‘Hey, I’m not dealing with this anymore.’ ”
Would regulations work?
Felton’s brother, Simon Bachmann, is an Army drill sergeant at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga. The two of them have talked about the Martin situation and believe there are harsh realities that are similarly inherent when it comes to playing in the NFL and serving in the military.
“Whether it’s the military or football, it’s not for everybody,” Felton said. “The NFL is a tough deal. It’s hard. You have to have thick skin. I don’t think there’s a big issue in NFL locker rooms. They’re not like normal offices and they never will be.