It seems to me that we just aren’t spending enough time focusing on potential solutions for what seems to be a critical issue in today’s NFL. And I’m not trying to single out the NFL – frankly, it’s societal in many ways. But being as the NFL is a business, a place of employment for young and talented athletes (and influencers of the masses), it seems to me that the rules of professionalism and conduct need some hard core foundational reinforcement – and I’m not too sure a 15-yard, game time penalty for name-calling is quite the magic panacea.
The fact is – in today’s day of social media and gossip, and everyone vying for a story that will deliver the viewers and therefore advertisers, the image of the National Football League, and the (predominantly) good-intentioned players working within it, is getting tarnished quickly. The abundance of stories about horrific acts crowd our Internet, at the expense of stories about the good work some players are doing to serve their communities.
I see media jumping all over stories of Richie Incognito as locker room bully, and Darren Sharper as alleged mass rapist, and then some. Meanwhile, The Chris Canty Foundation, working to help our youth become community leaders, or Jason Witten’s SCORE Foundation to help women and children effected by domestic violence, or the Charles Tillman Cornerstone Foundation to help families in need, and many other good organizations like it, struggle to get as much visibility and funding as they need, in order to continue to make a positive difference. Do the masses really know about The Chris Canty Foundation? Well the masses sure know about Aaron Hernandez (and if the NFL thinks people won’t always associate him with the league, they are mistaken – so something new needs to happen).
Over the last year or so, we’ve seen sexual harassment and assault, bullying, murder, suicide, racism and sexism come into the headlines of America’s Game. And I can tell you this much – NONE of that would ever be an issue in my workplace because anyone would be flat out fired and banished forever from my employer and from the industry (and then some) if they were ever to be caught doing any of the types of things we have seen in the last only 18 months in the NFL (and I am merely making an example of the last 18 months). Are the weeks and months of countless stories generated by these acts, in fact, the image the NFL wants to be known for?
Granted, one cannot generalize an entire league based on the acts of a handful or bad eggs, but it seems to me that the extreme nature of these acts, and the number of times we have heard incidents in the last year, is more than your typical business. And in reality, people DO generalize, so the NFL and its employees, must not ignore its significance. Is there a need for a very harsh penalty instated by the NFL around conduct – to ultimately make the NFL workplace more like a normal one? Why should the NFL be held at some different standard than the rest of us?
So your ProBowl, starting Defensive Back turns out to be selling drugs on the side? That wasn’t in your team’s plans? Doesn’t matter. He’s out of the league. Figure out how to do without him. My company wouldn’t even think about it. It should be a privilege to play in this league and to make the paycheck you’re making – and the goal should be that only those who are the top of the game on and off the field should represent.
Remember many of these players once went to The NFL Scouting Combine or pre-draft pro-days, and teams looked at their skill on the field, but also questioned them in interviews in effort to gauge their emotional intelligence, their teamwork, and their leadership potential? Should that part stop once they are in?
And so I have to also ask – is the NFL doing enough to help lay a foundation for these athletes? After all, they are young kids with diverse upbringing and backgrounds. No, I was not committing murder I my 20s (nor am I now), but still, if there is a professional code of conduct that these would-be role models of millions of young children (and even adults) should be following, should it not be reinforced in a way that helps more of these young men to become the leaders in life and the community that they can be? After all – they have been give some tools that many of us would be privileged to have: talent, an opportunity to learn teamwork at its most profound level, coaching that can be translated into so many of life’s great opportunities…
Why not reinforce that proactively from the get go? Whatever you are doing now – is just not good enough.
Recently, I heard Alex Marvez and Bill Polian on the radio, speaking about the NFL Player Policy Manual. Apparently, this manual does include language about the use of violent or threatening behavior in or outside the workplace. It also contains language around discrimination, intimidation or harassment of any kind in effort to create a positive working environment. And yes, every player does receive this. But, it this enough? Come on – do you actually think I read every instruction manual I am given? Do you read them? Actually, I read very few of them. Different people learn or digest information in different ways. I am pretty sure that the typical NFL player does not spend a whole lot of time memorizing the Player Policy Manual.
Reinforcement of the rules, WHY the rules exist, how breaking the rules can effect the player, and what the player’s true opportunity is in life if they follow the rules… this should be reinforced interactively, passionately, and with repetition. In the world of advertising, a message is delivered to target audiences many times and in a varying number of ways, so that buyers can be most likely to remember (or notice) the message at some point, hopefully sooner than later. It is the same here.
So how often, and in what ways should the rules of conduct be reinforced? At what point should the harshest of penalties be given (ejection for the season or the league)? Do we need to wait until someone is hurt for that to happen, or should there be examples made of lesser offenses? Remember – players are employees of the NFL. And for the time of their employ, a coach or a GM, or the league itself, is their manager. To what extent should a coach or GM be reinforcing these important rules? And to what extent CAN a coach or GM be expected to detect when a player is troubled (such as Joe Philbin to Jonathan Martin), or that a significant issue may exist (such as Bill Belichick to Aaron Hernandez or Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennel to Jovon Belcher)? All of these questions must be addressed now by the league, and not postponed for a more convenient time.
Last Fall, I was pleased to read an article (in NJ.com) speaking about the way Tom Coughlin chose to address his team about the topic of bullying in the wake of the issue between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin in Miami:
“To get his point across, only the Giants coach addressed the subject. No team captains or assistants spoke. The message came straight from the head coach, and the head coach only.
One Giants player described Coughlin’s tone as “stern.” He clearly had everyone’s attention, several players agreed.
Coughlin’s message was clear: That isn’t going to happen with the Giants.”
The care and concern for the team, the players, and the overall health of the league seems evident in Coughlin’s address of the team. But it will need to be reinforced again and again, and not only by Coughlin. As leaders in the league, as with any company, it’s important that coaches, GMs, and league officials understand their roles in helping to change the course of things. There may be rigor on the playing field, but there must also be rigor in the training room, in the coach’s office, and in the league (communicating 1:1, 1:few and 1:many).
It’s not about pointing the finger and saying it’s only the players who have to figure out a positive foundation on their own. They are young and impressionable. They may not have the natural disposition for discipline (which seem s to be a bit of an oxymoron for an NFL-calibur player). These days, most think they have the world as their oyster coming into the NFL. It’s also about accountability – and the leadership team must also take it upon themselves to help build a foundation that helps encourage, and helps to hold players up to their highest potential. And at the same time, players must take responsibility for their choices on and off the field as they represent the business and privilege they have been given to play in the National Football League.
Will some fall through the cracks? Yes. Not everyone will recognize the great opportunity they have being an NFL player. But can new rules and new approaches be enforced that can help make even one guy think twice before choosing a negative path? Likely.
Would it be worth it if one potential Aaron Hernandez could make better choices in his life?