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Clean up the locker rooms

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Not long ago, NFL coaches routinely rushed injured players back onto the field before they were ready. Coaches also ran their teams like despots, with their ears closed to player concerns.

Nowadays, things are a bit different. Sensitive to its image and the possibility of litigation, the league requires teams to treat injuries, particularly concussions, much more seriously. And coaching styles have evolved away from the General Patton-like model.

But if coaches have changed with the times, the locker rooms they rule haven’t changed much since players wore leather helmets. The mess in Miami, where Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin left the team after being subjected to epithets and other abuse from fellow offensive lineman Richie Incognito, exposes how destructive outdated player rituals can be.

In its most common form, the hazing of teammates is harmless enough. Veterans make rookies sing songs or perform skits at training camp. But at the extreme exhibited by Incognito, it involves physical or emotional abuse, or forcing younger players to pick up dinner tabs that can reach five figures.

Incognito took it up another notch, alleged to include racially offensive language delivered by voice mail and text. So far, that level of intimidation appears to be an aberration, and if that’s the way it stays, the incident probably doesn’t warrant some sweeping new leaguewide policy. But it does show how quickly such behavior can spin out of control if coaches ignore it, or even encourage it as a way to "toughen up" a player regarded as "soft," as some news reports suggest happened in Miami.

As a result, Miami is now without two of its starting linemen -- Martin because he was fed up and Incognito because he was suspended. Any coach with an ounce of ability can find more effective ways to motivate his players. At least two highly successful NFL coaches, Andy Reid and Tony Dungy, have said in recent days they had anti-hazing policies.

By getting rid of hazing, coaches who still allow it would also set a better example for college and high school teams that often take their cues from the pros.

What’s particularly galling about hazing is that veterans claim that it is essential to building team chemistry. That’s a pretty self-serving justification for people who receive favors and get to act like bullies.

It is also contrary to common sense. In what other business — and pro football is, at its core, a business — does a company bring in top-notch employees, pay them huge salaries, and then allow them to be demeaned or even extorted by co-workers?

As a classics major from Stanford with two Harvard-educated parents, Martin is not your average NFL player. Perhaps because of his pedigree, and conduct on and off the field that struck some as insufficiently aggressive, he was apparently targeted for abuse by a player with a history of thuggish behaviour.

Any smart boss would keep hazing out of his workplace. That should include coaches. It doesn’t really make players better or help teams bond. And in some cases, as we’re seeing in Miami, it can backfire disastrously.

 

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