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.
“There’s definitely going to be some changes made. I don’t know if they’ll all be for the good, but they’re coming. Once you have one of these situations come out and the media is pumping the story, now you hear about it every single day, all day long. People start to think it’s some huge issue in the entire NFL. And I just don’t think that’s right.”
Greenway said he isn’t sure what to expect when it comes to possible locker room regulations.
“I think you have to put in place a process where people can report it, where it can become easier and more out in the open to where guys can say, ‘Hey, this is going on and it’s not OK,’ ” Greenway said. “But other than that, I don’t know what you can do. You can’t have a locker room police officer in there sort of watching what goes on. That would seem a little preposterous.”
Racial slur debate
The eight-member NFL Competition Committee also is considering proposing a new rule to the owners that would punish players who use the N-word during games with a 15-yard penalty. Anyone who has spent time around NFL players knows it’s a popular word, most often used in a friendly manner between black players.
“Again, I don’t think the N-word is as big of an issue as I’ve been hearing about,” said Felton, who is black. “It’s definitely said and it’s definitely out there. But it’s just part of the locker room culture. I’ve never been in a situation where I was uncomfortable with how it was said.”
Greenway, who is white, said it’s yet another new rule possibility to which players must be willing to adjust.
“Obviously I know it’s not OK to be used,” he said. “But within that culture, it’s widely accepted. So who am I to say they aren’t allowed to use it? I’m not sure if there’s a mandate that can come down on that either on the field or in the locker room.”
An openly gay player
Greenway said he thinks Sam, the openly gay player from Missouri, will be accepted in an NFL locker room.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “There are so many differences between all of us. It seems to me like an openly gay player would be a nonissue.”
Felton said there will be an adjustment period because of the media’s initial reaction and the fact that some players will shy away from Sam out of fear of accidentally saying the wrong thing and creating a story.
“He won’t have an overly difficult time,” Felton said. “But there will be an adjustment period. When he was at Missouri, he told everybody his senior year. They had already grown to become good friends with him and love him and consider him a teammate and a brother. In the NFL, people won’t know who he is. But, honestly, the toughest thing for him is going to be dealing with the media. He’ll have to answer those stupid questions over and over.”
The NFL also could be dealing with more problems depending on what happens with the independent investigation of Priefer, who was accused by former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe of bigotry in the form of homophobic slurs directed toward Kluwe’s outspoken support of gay rights. Kluwe also accused the Vikings of releasing him in part because of that public support.
Priefer has denied the charges and the Vikings have stood behind him, allowing him to be retained by new coach Mike Zimmer. Results of the investigation are expected by the end of March.
“When I heard Kluwe’s [charges], it shocked me,” Felton said. “I’m in most of the special teams meetings and Priefer has never been anything but respectful when I’ve been around him. … He’s a good person. … If you were to ask me, I would be shocked and surprised if he said those things to Kluwe in a hateful way.
“And the part about Kluwe saying he got released because of his views, that was ridiculous. … If he was a top-five punter and got released for a guy with a lot of upside, that’s one thing. But that wasn’t the case.”
Felton said he has no idea what the NFL owners will do when they meet March 23-26 in Orlando. But he is expecting the league to make behavior between players a point of emphasis in some way.
“Especially early on this season,” Felton said. “So in training camp, we’re probably going to have three two-hour meetings about it. But once the grind of the season starts and people are trying to make the team and win games, that will be the furthest thing from people’s mind. Guys will act how they normally act.”
Of course, as Greenway said, making adjustments is just part of the NFL landscape on and off the field.
“I think whatever the owners decide in anything, you have to remain flexible,” Greenway said. “Remain flexible and just keep playing ball.”