Time for Change in Pro Locker Rooms

Nate Levinson

Miami Dolphins offensive guard Richie Incognito and Los Angeles Clippers guard-forward Matt Barnes showed this month that the NFL and NBA have a huge problem on their hands.

On Nov. 2, it was reported that Incognito bullied teammate and fellow offensive lineman Jonathan Martin over the course of several months.

The abuse eventually got so bad that Martin had to leave the team nine weeks into the season.

After hearing that Martin had left his team mid-season, my initial reaction was that he should suck it up. Hazing is simply an accepted part of NFL locker rooms, and if Martin couldn’t handle it, then the problem was his.

As information about Incognito’s harassment came to light, however, my judgment proved to be rash.

Incognito, who is white, went well beyond just hazing his 24-year-old teammate. In one particularly damaging voicemail, he called Martin, biracial, a “half-n****r,” and said he would “shit in [his] fucking mouth” and “slap [his] real mother across the face.”

If this is at all inductive of what goes on in NFL locker rooms, then the league needs to take action immediately to put an end to it.

Hazing in NFL locker rooms is an age-old tradition, but if it leads to things like this, it’s time for the practice to go. Apparently NFL players don’t have enough respect for one another to be trusted to take part in what should be light-hearted hazing.

Even if Incognito was just a bad seed in a system that otherwise worked, his conduct means allx hazing has to go. Its potential harm to players obviously outweighs any good it may have been doing. Players might argue that hazing brings teammates closer together, but there are countless other ways to promote team bonding

Sadly, the Incognito-Martin incident wasn’t the only time this month that a pro athlete was unable to keep from running his mouth.

Barnes, who obviously learned nothing from the Dolphins incident that shook the entire sporting world, took it upon himself to use the N-word in a rant on Twitter during the middle of a game. In the middle of a freaking game. Barnes was ejected from a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder and used the slur in a tirade where he said he would no longer stand up for his teammates during games.

It’s clear that, at the very least, the NBA and NFL need to do a better job policing players. If the leagues have allowed the creation of a locker room culture that says it’s ok to use racial epithets and bullying to get a point across, then something is seriously wrong.

But, how should the leagues go about establishing change? Grown men have the right to express themselves the way they want. Still, teams are paying players millions of dollars to not only perform on the field, but to behave and be role models off it. It’s up to coaches and higher management to send the message to players that hazing and racial slurs have no place in the locker room or in on social media.

The leagues also need to better educate players, particularly when they’re first drafted or signed, about the despicable history behind the words they use so casually.

The NFL made a big first step on Thursday. The Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization that promotes diversity and equality of job opportunity for NFL coaching candidates, issued a statement that said officials have noticed excessive use of the N-word during games.

The Alliance acknowledged that players have different ways of communicating, but said that to use the N-word “so loosely now is a disgrace.”

This is a step in the right direction. Now, players need to do their part.

Professional athletes come from all different backgrounds, and many of them hail from environments where hazing is common and certain racial epithets are heard often. That can’t fly in the pros, though. Players need to realize that there are millions of eyes on them at all time, and that they are setting an example for people all over the country, young and old.

To players who still can’t help but run their mouths, I ask them the question: ‘Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?”