COLUMBIA, Mo. (CBS St. Louis/AP) — In the wake of a scandal surrounding incidents of bullying in the Miami Dolphins’ locker room, executives from teams throughout the NFL who recently gathered for the annual scouting combine spoke about being on guard to ensure their locker rooms are respectful and tolerant.
Predictably, general managers and coaches said a culture of respect was already in place with their clubs before Richie Incognito, the Dolphins offensive lineman who led the extreme hazing detailed in an NFL-ordered report, became an infamous name. But while there haven’t been many major signs of response to the scandal, some tangible signs of change have at least emerged.
For example, teams have begun to include language in coaches’ contracts that forces assistants to act with more tolerance than some of the Dolphins staff did – a move designed to limit a team’s liability if another Miami-like situation were to emerge with another club.
It’s not the first time in recent history that teams have had to revisit their policies on tolerant behavior. The NFL reminded teams of laws against inquiring as to a draft prospect’s sexuality since, one year ago, three players complained that they were asked inappropriate questions they believed were intended to obtain details about their sexual orientation.
The matter is especially pressing now, to some, because of strides made by players such as Michael Sam of the University of Missouri – who is expected to soon become the first publicly gay player in the NFL – and Jason Collins, whose 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets allowed him to make history as the first openly homosexual person to play in the NBA.
National discourse on such matters has brought to the minds of many images of xenophobia, ignorance and hostility in locker rooms throughout the nation. But despite the amount of attention given to the report on the Dolphins by sports news outlets, and to speculation regarding the conditions players such as Sam and Collins might face, some experts feel the issue may not be as prevalent as some have been led to believe.
“[There is this view that] locker rooms are places where f-bombs are being dropped everywhere, and the n-word, and that’s not really the case,” Wade Davis, a former NFL player and executive director of the You Can Play Project, said. “Miami is the exception, not the rule.”
Jonathan F. Katz, a licensed psychologist and founding partner of High Performance Associates, agreed, though he added that some strong language will likely persist regardless of external pressure.
“There has been a greater sensitivity over racist and homophobic comments, and they have become less acceptable over time,” he observed. “I’m not sure the same trajectory is true of general cursing.”
Be it crass yet seemingly harmless language or racially charged slurs designed to isolate and offend, the perpetuation of an environment that allows for such behavior was attributed to several factors.
Clark Power, an education professor at the University of Notre Dame specializing in moral development, bullying and youth sports, said that our “highly individualistic culture” may be partly to blame, as well as the social lessons learned during our formative years.
“As soon as children go to school, they form groups and exclude those they believe are different and less powerful,” he said. “Those in authority often feel that the children ought to be left alone to work out their peer group relationships. As early as the third grade, children adopt a strong norm against ‘ratting’ out a peer, and this norm helps to insulate the peer culture from those in authority.”
Both Davis and Katz also felt that certain societal influences – and failures – prevalent in America feed into the issue.
“I think historically this is kind of how guys are traditionally – the talking, the joking, the cursing as part of athletic competition. I’m not sure it’s a lot different than guys just hanging out,” Katz said. “[It may be more frequent in locker rooms] because it’s a safer environment. You’re secluded from the outside world a little, and there’s a safety … that you have the ability to say and talk about stuff and it stays there.”
He additionally asserted that female athletes are, generally speaking, far less likely to engage in similar behavior, a phenomenon he attributed to “how women and men are socialized from a certain age,” which makes behaviors such as aggression more acceptable for men in the eyes of many because of those deeply ingrained double standards.
Davis, meanwhile, noted that “[those athletes] were raised here in America … where being gay is seen as ‘less than,’ as weak, as feminine.”
He continued: “We love to point the finger at athletes, but also, look at Arizona. There were no athletes voting on the legislation [that might have given businesses the freedom to deny service to gays for religious reasons].”
Helping those who use offensive language to understand the etymology of the words themselves – and the history of the groups those terms label – might go a long way, according to some.
“One problem in our society is that we don’t talk about the true history [of certain groups]; we talk about the surface stuff. People should blame the country for doing a really bad job of educating our youth on African-American history,” Davis said. “How can I balk at a kid who has only heard a word used in a specific context but has never been taught the history? Instead of campaigning to end words like the n-word or the f-word, we should teach people the history of those words.”
Others said that exposure to people from different walks of life could make a difference. And ultimately, experts saw hope for the future. Power especially felt that the presence of players such as Collins and Sam – as well as the public exposure of bullying in locker rooms – will go a long way.
“Jason Collins and Michael Sam are taking a courageous step in challenging their teammates to address patters of bullying and harassment. Media coverage has already exposed some of the deplorable practices that have been accepted as a part of locker room culture,” he said. “Hopefully more athletes are going to show some moral courage of their own and assure other openly gay teammates deserve to play in an atmosphere that will support as well as respect them.”
“There is no substitute for experience,” he noted. “If you meet someone who is religiously, ethnically, or socioeconomically different, it demystifies them and [weakens] the stereotypes and beliefs some might have. Exposure … helps the learning process and adds tolerance.”
For Davis, his campaign to create a better and more supportive sporting world for LGBT players prioritizes understanding above all else – an approach he hopes others would adopt in addressing the situation.
“I own the fact that I was a bully. I used a lot of homophobic language because I was dealing with a lot of internalized homophobia and self-shame,” he confessed of his past. “I’m going to talk about me, and my problems, and hopefully that will make someone realize that I’m not here to judge anyone, because I can’t. I’m here to create a conversation where everyone has a seat at the table and everyone’s voices are heard.”
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