NFL remains a generation behind the times

The Post Sports Live crew looks at whether University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam's announcement that he's gay could affect his NFL draft status. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist February 24

In recent decades, most of us have watched our workplace became more tolerant, less biased, more sensitive to differences of ethnicity, gender, age, religion and sexual orientation. American laws changed to reflect our greater enlightenment as a society. Some still resist out of anger, ignorance or evil. But, in our time as in most ages, we’ve watched incremental progress arrive.

Industries change at different paces. But the NFL lags by a generation. Pro football needs to transform its workplace and finally join the rest of us. If the experience of millions of us, including my memories of the turmoil in newspaper sports departments 40 years ago, is an indication of what’s in store, the NFL workplace will shift as much in the next five years as it has in the last 50.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Whether the issue is vicious hazing of NFL rookies, or trouble accepting an openly gay player, or the league’s lies and cynicism in hiding its knowledge of brain damage to its ex-players, time is finally up. It’s the two-minute warning for a commissioner who’s been an NFL man half his life.

Even nicknames give away the NFL mind-set. Where else would a billion-dollar business proclaim that it will “NEVER — you can use caps” change a name and logo that offends many, including plenty of its own customers. When the wind shifts, all the leaves blow the same direction. A nickname, in the bigger scheme, is a leaf.

You can be on the wrong side of history for decades, then in a few years — and the last few months have brought all these issues into the open or into focus — find yourself a victim of that history if you don’t change in time. A point comes when things are finally called by their proper names.

This week, Rep. Tim Cole (R-Okla.) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) wrote a formal letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urging the league to support a formal name change for the Washington Redskins. The Post Sports Live crew debates whether an act of Congress would be needed for Dan Snyder to change the team's name. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

A day always comes when intolerance is no longer tolerated. The time arrives when sadistic malice, rationalized as brotherly “bonding,” is no longer allowed. And eventually our courts rule against decades of lies about employee health issues; then corporate stonewalls are reduced to rubble.

Recently, three names in the news have highlighted ways in which the NFL environment is ridiculously, comically behind the rest of American society: Richie Incognito, Michael Sam and Judge Anita Brody.

As revealed in the NFL’s own 144-page report this month, Incognito is the bully-in-chief among Miami Dolphins players and coaches who viciously hazed several young players with sexual taunts about their female relatives, racial slurs, inappropriate touching and homophobic insults.

“He looks like he’s about to cry 24/7,” Incognito wrote, describing one of his victims in a text to a Miami assistant line coach.

The coach replied, “Hahahaha. He’s gonna go crazy one of these days.”

Makes you want to line up for an NFL autograph, doesn’t it?

The problem isn’t Incognito. Apparently, he just continued a Dolphins tradition. According to the Miami Herald, lineman Nate Garner texted to bullying target Jonathan Martin: “Hey bro if u need to talk to anyone I’m here for you. I have been dealing with this (bleep) for 6 years. I hope ur doin ok.” Like the Stanford grad Martin, Garner was ostracized because he dared to show he had a brain: He liked computers and electronics.

Into this world Sam, the all-American linebacker from Missouri, will soon step. The NFL is, officially, breaking its back to salute his “courage” for coming out. But is Miami really the only franchise hostile to gays?

The NFL has become so concerned about tolerance that its competition committee is considering a 15-yard penalty for discriminatory language on the field. Some of that stems from an incident last season involving a racial slur used against African Americans in a game. Perhaps it’s a useful coincidence that such a rule might arrive in Sam’s first season.

But more than any of its many recent scandals and embarrassments, Judge Brody may shake the league to its core. Last month, she threw back the NFL’s $765 million concussion settlement with its retired players. When ex-players accepted that class-action settlement, some analysts said it was many hundreds of millions too low to cover everyone who might deserve payments. The ex-players were getting old; the NFL lawyers could fight them until they were in their graves, so they took what they could get.

Brody said nuts to that. A class of 20,000 players might be qualified for settlements of $3.5 million for Parkinson’s or $5 million for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. What about players who killed themselves after suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (a lifetime of football hits in the head)?

If even 10 percent of 20,000 deserved payments, who said $765 million was sufficient? You guessed it: The NFL did. Or their “economists” did.

And what actual proof did they provide to Brody? “No such analyses were provided to me,” she wrote. “In the absence of . . . evidence, I have concerns about the fairness, reasonableness, and adequacy of the Settlement.”

Millions of us could testify to how fast a workplace alters when the tides of a culture finally shift. I offer mine simply because parts of the sports departments of 40 years ago were typical of countless workplaces of the time. As a copy boy on the lobster shift until 2 a.m., what I observed was no worse, but no better, than countless other workplaces — like openly discriminatory jokes. One night the departing editors jammed the youngest reporter into a narrow coat locker as they left at 2 a.m. A night watchman heard him screaming and let him out. Nobody was scolded — just hazing.

What stunned me was that these old-timers had no idea they were an endangered species that would soon be swept out of The Post and the profession. Once a cultural corner is turned, the new direction is established at amazing speed.

The NFL culture is dug in deep. When Sam came out, national TV commentators congratulated him and then, without knowing what they were saying, characterized his action as “admitting” he was gay.

An ex-NFL head coach wondered if teams might avoid drafting Sam because media attention would make him a “distraction.” That coach is an African American; would he have said that the ’47 Brooklyn Dodgers should have paused to consider what a “distraction” Jackie Robinson would be?

My advice to the dinosaurs of the NFL would be the same that virtually every kind of American workplace has learned: Change or disappear.

Progress doesn’t just arrive. It also erases.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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