Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Football the most primitive of sports

Locker-room brings out the beast in players

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With his actions, Jonathan Martin is making the NFL locker-room accountable to the standards and practices of a typical work environment. The only problem with this is the locker-room in professional football is anything but typical, and unlikely to change anytime soon.

If you aren't up to speed with the goings on of the Miami Dolphins, here is what you need to know. Martin used to play offensive tackle for the team. He left because he says he was bullied, hazed and harassed -- mainly by Richie Incognito -- to the point he had to seek treatment for emotional distress.

The problem with opening this window into the culture of pro-football is what you see when you look inside. Physical and mental abuse and harassment -- to some degree -- is something that happens every day in this world. It is the byproduct and side effect of the most physical and aggressive industry there is.

The cycle begins with the fact, for the most part, veterans don't initially care for the new players continually introduced to the team -- rookies. This aversion is understandable. If every year at your place of employment, multiple younger and cheaper prospects were brought in to compete for your job, and eventually take it, you probably wouldn't greet them with open arms either.

The reality of the game, though, is it is so taxing, player performances are usually compromised by the third or fourth year; either that or they start making too much money and can be replaced by these fresher and less damaged alternatives.

For the most part, veteran players are aware of this expiration date and that the process of attrition isn't personal, it's just business, but they demand a certain measure of respect from the new players that will eventually succeed them. When they insist they carry their pads, or pay for a dinner, make them sing, or play jokes on them at lunch, it is the unwritten price tag rookies are asked to pay as a small tribute to the men they eventually replace.

Most new players understand these are nothing more than minor rite of passage demonstrations. They are asked to be humble and show humility as part of their indoctrination. It is a minor inconvenience to pay to be welcomed into a locker-room.

Locker-rooms are not regular workplaces, because the work they do is not regular. Every day in practice, by definition, players assault one another. The physical punishment they inflict on each other during the week, and on game day, are criminal acts except when they fall under the umbrella and label of "sport."

In this job, when everything else is equal, the more aggressive you are, the more coveted you are. The player that can walk that fine line of nastiness, a hair's breadth away from intending to injure, is the prototype that coaches seek out and encourage.

The basic tenets for success in this game are not sophisticated and have not evolved over the years. On the football field, might still makes right, and those that are bigger, stronger, and faster, are revered. I still remember when Wally Buono talked about how respected a player by the name of Tyrone Williams was in his locker-room. While Tyrone certainly had strong leadership qualities, he was also the biggest and baddest dog on the block, and therefore ruled over any locker-room with impunity.

What happened with Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin is a case of one man not understanding boundaries, and how and when to turn that switch from hostility to civility, and another man who had conventional and civilized expectations from his workplace environment. What it is alleged that Incognito did to Martin are merely extreme examples of behaviour that is commonplace in most all professional football locker rooms.

The culture of the game of football is not an excuse for what happened here. It is simply the nature of many of those who are recruited and paid to play it at the highest level, and the consequence of a game that is most primitive at its core.

Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays and the days following game days in the Free Press.

Twitter: @DougBrown97

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 12, 2013 C10

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