Locker Room Culture in Spotlight as Combine Begins
INDIANAPOLIS -- This could be as good a time as there has ever been for an openly gay player in the NFL. The league will be watching.
In the wake of the bullying scandal in Miami, executives from teams around the league who gathered for the annual scouting combine spoke Thursday about being on guard to ensure their locker rooms are respectful and tolerant - especially with Michael Sam, expected to soon become the first publicly revealed homosexual in the NFL.
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 last week 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.
Teams have begun to include language in coaches' contracts that forces assistants to act with more tolerance than some of the Dolphins staff did. The move is designed to limit a team's liability if another Miami-like situation were to emerge with another club.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman confirmed that change, first reported by ESPN.
"I think because it's so much in light right now, that you have to monitor the locker room," Spielman said. "It'll be interesting to see once we get down to the owners meetings in March. I'm sure that'll be a subject that'll be talked about."
Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, drawing an overflow crowd of reporters in his first appearance since the report came out, forcefully reiterated his responsibility for all that happens to his team and promised a "better workplace."
"I have to do a better job. I'm going to look at every way - the way we educate, the way we communicate, the way we talk to one another," Philbin said. "I'm going to look at every avenue."
Reaction from the other 31 teams to the bullying report was far more muted, though other coaches - Dennis Allen of the Oakland Raiders among them - acknowledged the importance of keeping a better handle on locker room dynamics.
Everyone, though, must deal with the questions about Sam, the Missouri defensive end projected to be drafted in the middle rounds.
The NFL recently reminded teams of laws against asking draft prospects about their sexuality and the guidelines for interviewing players this week in Indianapolis. A year ago, three players complained they were asked inappropriate questions they believed were intended to seek details about their sexual orientation.
Talking about harmony is easy in the offseason, of course, but maintaining an atmosphere of respect and tolerance is another story once dozens of players are thrown together. With a 53-man roster, no coach can come close to hearing every word.
"It's hard. You try to set a good culture and a good environment in your building and hope for the best," Denver Broncos coach John Fox said.
Clearly, this issue will be scrutinized this year, with Sam entering the league, and the Dolphins trying to repair their image.
"What happened there has nothing to do with what we are doing in Tampa Bay," new Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith said. "The locker room has been there all along. You have to have strong veteran leadership in the locker room. As the head football coach I have to have a pulse on what is going on in the locker room. Rely on a lot of people. Have a relationship were information comes to me.
"No, we are not going to change what we've done. Our program has always been about acceptance. Everybody feeling like they are part. Everybody feeling good about coming to work every day in an environment where they can do their best."
That is what this next class of rookies is counting on.
"In every locker room you go there's going to be conflict," Memphis punter Tom Hornsey said. "That's just the nature of the game. It's very competitive. It's got a lot of testosterone flowing through. ... But it's not a concern. I'm pretty laid back and just take it as it is."
So what's the secret, then, to making sure the boys-will-be-boys culture that still exists doesn't become the dominant vibe of the locker room?
Well, like with many issues, the Super Bowl champions are usually a good place to start.
"Everybody puts pressure on themselves, and we try to create a culture that's outgoing, fun, aggressive," Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider said. "Life's too short to stress yourself out and stress other people out."