“They got a building down New York City; it's called Whitehall Street,
where you walk in, you get injected, inspected, detected, infected,
neglected and selected.”
Those of you are fans of Arlo Guthrie’s classic “Alice’s Restaurant” know that the above snippet describes his take on what draftees went through during the Vietnam War. If we are to believe the song, Guthrie went through the induction process’ poking and prodding but didn’t make it to ‘Nam, thanks to an earlier arrest for littering and creating a public nuisance.
Arlo won’t be in Indianapolis this weekend for the NFL Combine, but plenty of young football hopefuls will subject themselves to a litany of physical, intellectual and emotional tests in the name of improving their draft statuses (stati?) and finding places on pro football rosters. It’s an annual rite that has grown from a low-key way for teams to get accurate information about players to a phenomenon that attracts paying attendees of questionable sanity and non-stop coverage by NFL Network. If you like to watch 320-pound men maneuvering their substantial frames around tiny orange cones, the Combine is your event.
Much of what happens in Indy is very public. We’ll learn how fast Cornerback X can run a 40 or how high Tight End Y can jump. Perhaps the most important work, however, occurs away from the cameras’ and fans’ eyes. That’s when execs interview prospects to see if they fit their teams’ cultures or have some personality traits that might prevent them from becoming productive investments. Those discussions, together with results of the Wonderlic Test and deep background checks by NFL gumshoes, create personality profiles that can raise or lower a player’s status. (Of course, sometimes fiery red flags are ignored, as in the case of Aaron “living on edge of acceptable behavior” Hernandez.)
This year, teams had better pay closer attention to what interviews and testing reveal about prospects, because the NFL world is going to be changing. Fallout from the recently concluded investigation into the Miami Dolphins locker room climate and the expected entry into the league by openly gay defensive end Michael Sam will mandate a seismic shift in player culture. For the first time, the NFL will look force teams to create workplace environments for everybody in the organization, from the most mild-mannered accounting assistant to the most ferocious linebacker. The last bastion of politically incorrect behavior and culturally approved bullying will be updated, and workplace standards that prevail everywhere else in the country will be implemented – and, El Hombre hopes – enforced.
That means racist and homophobic remarks are out – for coaches and players. It’s possible to challenge a man to be tougher without calling him names. It’s one thing to have a rookie bring donuts for his position group or sing his school’s fight song and another to gang up on him and fill his first year in the NFL with psychological trauma. This will have to be a top down process that comes from management, is enforced by the entire coaching staff and combines strict penalties with education about what is considered inappropriate behavior.
There will be inevitable pushback, just as there is when any cultural changes are implemented. We will hear about how behavior is being legislated and freedoms are being trampled. Since no other workplace environment tolerates abusive treatment of its workers, it’s hard to buy any of that. Players must learn that the 1950s (or 2000s) ways aren’t the right ways anymore – anywhere – and that includes the locker room. That shouldn’t be such a hard thing to understand for a large portion of NFL players, which is no doubt thrilled the prevailing mores from several decades ago no longer prevail.
It’s going to take a while for this change to be implemented, but we are already seeing signs that things will be different. Earlier this week, the Dolphins fired offensive line coach Jim Turner and head athletic trainer Kevin O’Neill for their roles in the actions described in Ted Wells’ report on the scandal.
During a press conference Thursday at the Combine, Miami head coach Joe Philbin said, “We are going to do things about it. We are going to make it better. We are going to look at every avenue. We are going to uncover every stone, and we are going to have a better workplace. I’m going to make sure that happens.”
As Philbin (who should have had a better handle on this in the first place) and the Dolphins attempt to change the culture, we are already seeing some results of the league’s greater attention to players’ behaviors. In a Thursday article on SI.com, Chris Burke said that NFL teams are quite interested in Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan’s role in a 2009 reported sexual assault involving teammate Brendan Gibbons. Lewan allegedly directed angry comments toward the alleged victim and now must answer some tough questions. His teammate, Michael Schofield, who is also at the Combine, has been grilled about Lewan, too. It will be interesting to see if the NFL will be as willing this year to trade bad character issues for good play as it has been in the past.
There are going to be some “distractions” as the league moves forward, and some teams will be more willing to accept the necessary changes than others will. Eventually, though, the NFL will adapt, simply because the new players who enter the league will be more prepared to behave properly than were their immediate ancestors – and certainly more able than those men who played 30-40 years ago. The NFL is late on this, as it was on concussion safety and the hiring of African-American head coaches. Making the necessary transformation will require a league-wide commitment with commissioner Roger Moneybags out in front. It can be done.
It must be done.
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EL HOMBRE SEZ: How about that Russian hockey team? Way to flame out in the quarters, comrades. And to do it against Finland, which has now won three straight against the Bear and hates its former oppressor with as much fervor as a Scandinavian country can muster, is particularly delicious. Alex Ovechkin and his teammates had better be on guard for cut brake lines and would be advised to hire food tasters. Maximum Leader Putin doesn’t like losing, and that figure skating gold doesn’t exactly sate his appetite for world domination…Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig has vowed to slow down on the field this season and not play with such abandon. That’s good news for those who were sick last year of his over-the-top home run celebrations and other showboating in the field. Depressed espn executives have made repeated phone calls begging him to continue acting like a nitwit, the better to help SportsCenter ratings…Speaking of baseball, the Mariners have to be happy that they have invested $240 mil over the next 10 years for Robinson Cano, especially after Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long has said that Cano had a tendency to dog it by not running out routine grounders. The Seattle Mariners: they’re on the move!! Slowly…How about that NBA All-Star Game. Hard to tell what was more ridiculous, the pre-game rap-a-thon and serial crotch-grab or the game itself, which featured even more points than the Sixers surrender on a given night. The East won, when an unexpected rash of defense broke out in the final minutes, holding the final score under 170 and infuriating those who love the NBA for everything but winning basketball…Meanwhile, the NHL Olympic hiatus continuezzzzzzzz…All of the American southeast is excited for this weekend’s Daytona 500, which will be preceded by Richard Petty’s receiving a special award from NOW and a pre-race musical performance by a bunch of guys in stupid hats…CBS has announced that it is dumping Dan Marino and Mr. Ed from its NFL pre-game disaster and replacing them with Tony Gonzalez in a desperate bid to make the show not suck. Unless Gonzalez is John Madden and Mike Ditka combined, that isn’t happening…How about those new Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ helmets?! A more “menacing” skull head. A bigger flag. All the team needs now are some good players to wear them.
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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Any Sixers fan who came away upset after Sixers GM Sam Hinkie’s Marrakesh-style trading frenzy on Thursday should be made to hand back his Julius Erving souvenir Afro wig. Hinkie may not have gained a first-round draft pick, but he did haul in a couple expiring contracts and several second-round picks while getting rid of some players who can actually help the team win some more games this year. It’s a full-on tank for the rest of the season, and it will be exciting to see what Hinkie has planned for Draft day, when he can use Thaddeus Young and his passel of picks to be the Big Player. Hats off to Hinkie. He’s doing it right so far.
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AND ANOTHER THING: After North Carolina defeated Duke Thursday night, Tar Heels students poured onto the court to celebrate the win over Coach Disingenuous and Blue Devils. It was indeed a big win for UNC, but it’s time to establish some rules for when it’s appropriate to storm the court. First off, any time a home team knocks off Number One, the student section should empty. Second, when a huge underdog pulls a stunning upset, storm away. Finally, buzzer-beating victories over big-time rival schools can trigger an emotional response that leads to a spontaneous outpouring. That’s perhaps the best case, since it’s organic. (Or, if you will, orgasmic.) But that’s it. No more storming for beating the number 18 team. And if you have won eight straight, boast a resume with a long and deep basketball tradition and knock off the fifth-rated team in the country that happens to be your ancestral rival, stay in the stands, folks. As much fun as it is to jump around on the hardwood, you’re almost giving the rival the satisfaction of knowing you hold it in high esteem. Show some restraint and act like your team – and its predecessors – have won before.
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ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD: Welcome to the big time, U.S. women’s hockey team: You choked. It was kind of the media to handle the team’s giving away a 2-0 lead in the last 3:26 of the gold-medal game gently, but the fact remains that if the men’s team were to do the same thing, it would be hammered. Sure, everybody is sad after a crushing defeat, and the emotions are raw. But this was a blown opportunity, and while Canada deserves credit for its perseverance and opportunistic play, the U.S. botched its chance. To their credit, the players made no excuses. They left that to the fawning media, which didn’t focus on the team’s inability to protect a lead in a huge game but chose instead to let us know that “sometimes it’s not meant to be”.