The recent turmoil surrounding the Miami Dolphins has triggered discussions about bullying among teammates, criticism of what some believe is a culture rampant in the NFL, even questions about what it means to be a man. The NFL’s investigation into Jonathan Martin’s abrupt departure from the Dolphins, alleged bullying of Martin by Richie Incognito, and Incognito’s suspension will no doubt be thorough. Until the findings are released, we won’t know much more about the interaction between Incognito and Martin or about the culture in the Dolphins’ organization.
For myself, the allegations of bullying caused me to look back on my own years as a member of the Baltimore Colts. Ted Marchibroda’s mantra was a simple one – “What have you done today to help Colt Football win?” – but it conveyed the message that each player mattered. It didn’t matter whether you were a starter or a backup; whether you came from a football powerhouse or a school with a struggling football program; whether your background was privileged or underprivileged; whether your playing style was cerebral, freelance or scrappy; whether you were an introvert or an extrovert; whether you were black or white; whether you were Catholic or Protestant, agnostic or atheist; whether you grew up in Pascagoula, Mississippi; Enid, Oklahoma; Stinson Beach, California; or Scituate, Massachusetts – you were an integral part of the team and had an important role to play.
That’s not to say there weren’t disagreements. Any time you have a group of folks from diverse backgrounds, with different personalities, there are bound to be conflicts. But those conflicts – whether blown plays and missed assignments on the field or the occasional transgression off the field – were dealt with through humor, with “Bonehead of the Week” Awards. You knew you let your teammates down, you knew you let yourself down, but you weren’t torn down, harassed or humiliated. We worked together, we lived together, we played together and we won together.
I’ve been around the NFL for more than 40 years – as a player, a player rep, an officer of the NFLPA’s former player organization, a member of NFL Alumni, a member of the media covering the Baltimore Ravens, and as president of Fourth & Goal, the first organization dedicated to raising money and advocating for retired players. I’ve seen the game grow beyond what I ever could have imagined.
In my day, the Colts held training camp at a local college, practiced in a temporary practice facility – for several years, a Catholic seminary – before moving into Memorial Stadium once the Baltimore Orioles’ season ended. Lunch was brought in by a locker room volunteer or a secretary, typically from a local deli or KFC. Our locker room was equipped with one amenity – foosball. Yet the coaches were in touch with the players. (My defensive coordinator Maxie Baughan even hosted a chili supper for the defense every season.) They knew when a player had an issue or was struggling and they addressed it in a humane manner. One example – when a defensive teammate of mine was struggling, Coach Marchibroda dispatched me and another teammate to visit with the troubled player to see what we could do to help him.
Today’s NFL teams are largely self-contained. Training camp is often held at the team’s year-round practice facility. An in-house cafeteria provides meals, often under the supervision of a nutritionist. Given that physical set-up, coaches and players interact even more closely every day than we did. So it’s difficult for me to comprehend how a modern-era coach, trainer, or club official could be unaware of bullying or harassment of a player or players.
If what we’ve heard about the culture in the Dolphins’ locker room is true, there’s work to be done – even if that culture is confined to one team and one organization. The NFL has been committed to player safety on the field. Here’s an opportunity for the league to extend that commitment to the locker room, to ensure a safe environment there. My teammate Joe Ehrmann, dubbed “The Greatest Coach in America” by Parade Magazine, is already involved with numerous teams and there are other former players and coaches, like Tony Dungy, who are doing what they can to mentor young players. Still, I believe there’s room for – and a need for – many more of us to be involved. I encourage the NFL to do just that – bring more of us into the fold. As I’ve said for years, retired players are an asset to the league.
President, Fourth & Goal
Baltimore Colts, 1972-1981
San Diego Chargers, 1982-1983