I have never seen a more dramatic disconnect in perception than in the Miami Dolphins' current situation. The public has rushed to judgment and concluded that pro footballers are vulgar, insensitive bullies. This is based on viewing leaked private communications between two teammates. Most NFL players feel that the sanctity of team chemistry and male bonding behavior has been violated with a player quitting a team and trying to enlist public support for his cause through leaks of texts and phone messages between two teammates.
One thing is clear -- there are not enough facts yet revealed in this conflict to bring clarity to what the reality is.
I have spent years in the fight to prevent bullying behavior at the youth level. Young people can have their self-esteem crushed and carry the scars for life of comments and behavior that stigmatizes them. Parents instituted programs at Corona del Mar High School to teach tolerance. I have addressed high school athletes on their need to be the models for acceptance on their campuses. They set the trends for the high school environment and can be critical in reversing bullying behavior.
Having spent the last 40 years working with professional athletes who have retraced their roots to the high school, collegiate and professional communities to enhance the quality of life and be role models, I am not convinced that the concept of bullying applies as a generalization in the NFL. There may be cases that need correction, but the camaraderie in the locker room is special.
Professional sports have been an inspiring example of how different ethnicities and races can work harmoniously toward a goal. Men work in close physical proximity; they bleed together, and rely on each other for support on and off the field. This is not talking heads on television pontificating about race relations as they return to their segregated neighborhoods. These are adults in the most intimate of work environments working out problems on their own.
Think how few problems there are in a baseball dugout with players who are black, white, or Latino coexisting with players from Korea, Japan, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and throughout Latin America. Black and white players in the NFL have their own ways of relating without major difficulty.
Men in groups -- fraternities, sports clubs, offices, locker rooms -- have always employed saltier vocabularies when they are engaged. There is a brutal level of banter. Nothing excuses a white person using the N word, but to expose the vocabulary of men in groups to the public would be embarrassing to the participants and shocking to the public. It is time to be real on this subject: Public and private discourse has always been different.
People in all groupings have their own codes and customs. The NFL is a violent game played by aggressive athletes. There is some form of rite of passage and entry into a group all across society. Athletes want to know that newcomers are willing to fit into a team format for the success of the whole. This doesn't mean a rookie should go into bankruptcy to pay for a team meal, but having a rookie sing their college song is hardly oppressive.
If there are situations in the NFL that truly are degrading to players, they need to be investigated and remedied. But to put a microscope on athletic behavior as if they were choirboys in church is unfair.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @SteinbergSports.
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