The recent scandal involving the oft troubled Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin has brought the unfortunate reality of hazing in the NFL and other sports to the forefront of the casual sports fan’s mind. I am the first to admit that I was not there and have probably heard no more about it than any of you. I have heard the accusations against Incognito as well as the voice mail he left Martin during training camp. I am fully aware that this type of thing probably happens in most NFL locker rooms and most of the time, the individual on the receiving end does not react in the way Jonathan Martin did… but that doesn’t make it ok. More surprising than the fact that hazing goes on in the NFL is the reaction to it around the league.
Most players and coaches (with the exception of Hunter Hillenmeyer and Marc Trestman) I have heard talk about this situation admit that Incognito may have crossed the line, but then go on to say that someone who is an adult and plays in the NFL should be “mentally tougher” than Martin and should just learn to deal with it. Another common defense of the situation has been “how can a 6’5 325 pound man be bullied?” The answer to that question is simple, bullying and hazing do not have to be a physical act, the abuse is often mental. Incognito used his status on the team and in the league as a veteran to intimidate and abuse Martin, leaving Martin few choices but to either physically confront him, report the abuse to his coach and GM, or leave the team. When the GM told his agent to “punch Incognito in the face,” Martin made the correct decision by removing himself from the situation.
In fact, the bullying and hazing that Martin endured could have been a direct result of his coach telling Incognito to “toughen” him up. There is no doubt that a career in the NFL is not for the physically or mentally squeamish. There are 11 giant men ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BALL who are trying to hit you as hard as they can on every play of the game. The key phrase there is “ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BALL.” It is tough enough to play against the players on the other team, let alone having to constantly battle players on your own team. This activity does not contribute to a winning culture. Winners stick together and have each other’s back. When he is constantly fighting off attacks from those on his side, it is no wonder Martin needed to get away from that team.
One of the more impressive figures in the saga (even though he has not been directly involved) is Bears head coach Marc Trestman who very clearly stated to his team on day one of training camp that those types of behaviors will not be tolerated. In an article by 670 The Score’s Adam Hoge (http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2013/11/06/hoge-trestman-stopped-bullying-before-it-ever-started/) Marc Trestman states:
“We’re not talking about taking someone’s helmet, we’re talking about other things. The words you use, the way you act, the things you say, affect people from all different backgrounds and places. We’ve got to understand that the beauty of this game is it draws people from everywhere, from different realities and different perceptions, but that can all be neutralized through respect and using the proper language and proper words in the right place and the right time.”
Coach Trestman really seems to understand that even though hazing of rookies may be “the way it has always been done,” it is not necessarily the right way to do things and certainly doesn’t contribute in any way (and in fact probably detracts from) winning football games, or winning games in any sport. In amateur athletics, it serves only as a means of praying on the weak and feeding the egos of insecure players. What Trestman understand is that if you are playing tug of war, the whole team needs to pull in the same direction for maximum results. Hazing, bullying and abuse are the equivalent of players pulling in the opposite direction.
I have never been in an NFL locker room, but I know that hazing serves no purpose, specifically it does not:
1.) Toughen players up mentally and physically
2.) Bring teams closer together
3.) Make people earn their position
4.) Create a sense of unity
5.) Contribute to a winning culture
What hazing really does:
1.) Creates a culture of secrecy between players and coaches that extends to all aspects of the team
2.) Creates a sense of entitlement with certain players on the team
3.) Creates a culture of resentment between teammates and the coaching staff
4.) Makes it more likely that players who awere re hazed will haze in the future (and probably worse)
5.) Divides teams into cliques
6.) Detracts from the sense of team
7.) Makes it difficult for players to work together on the field
8.) Makes players resent the team and not want to be part of it
As a coach, there is no possible way to monitor 100% of what is going on with your team. This task becomes especially difficult in 2013 with text messages, Facebook, Twitter, Snap Chat and probably 100 other social media sites that can be grossly abused while hiding behind a phone or computer. A coach CAN create an environment where players respect one another, work toward a common goal, and are not tempted to haze or bully by:
1.) Not allowing freshmen, underclassmen, or non-starters be responsible for carrying equipment. Put this in the hands of your seniors, captains, and starters. This guards against a sense of entitlement.
2.) Talk about hazing. Make it known what types of behavior are and are not acceptable on your team.
3.) Take all claims of bullying and hazing seriously. What may seem like a harmless joke to one individual may be hurtful to another.
4.) Stop problems before they start. The quickest way to encourage hazing is to let small little inappropriate activities go. They tend to build quickly and many times what is going on when you aren’t there is worse than what you hear or see.
5.) Supervise your team whenever possible. You cannot be with all members of the team at all times, but you can supervise while they are at a team function (practice, game or activity)
6.) Don’t assume you have good people on your team and it wouldn’t happen. Even good people get caught up in mob mentality and do things they would never do on their own.
Hazing has no place in any locker room and does not contribute to the well-being of the team or the players on the team. Coaching is more than simply teaching the game you love. It is ensuring the safety of the young athletes parents entrust to you, and building quality characters on and off the field. Kudos to Coach Trestman and his approach to stopping hazing in the NFL while still preparing his players to play a violent game. This approach can work in the NFL and will certainly work in the youth, high school, and college levels. But it starts with you, the coach.