Tackling Offensive Conduct — Inside and Out of the Locker Room

By Stephen Paskoff

Feb. 20, 2014

The National Football League has released its investigative report arising out of Jonathan Martin’s claim that his teammates’ abuse forced him to leave the Miami Dolphins last November.

Lawyers from a prestigious outside firm spoke with more than 100 witnesses, reviewed thousands of texts and emails, examined practices and policies and made factual findings. They concluded that Martin had been repeatedly taunted, bullied and harassed by teammate Richie Incognito and aided by two other offensive linemen, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey. The conduct involved sexual, racial and other offensive content about Martin and his family members. They noted that while team bonding is important, “limits should exist”.

The attorneys also commented:

“We did not approach this assignment expecting to discover behavior that society might anticipate in, say, an accounting firm or a law office”.

What’s striking, though, is that the behaviors identified in the report, while extreme in their coarseness and vulgarity, are comparable to what has occurred in other environments including law firms, accounting practices, health care institutions and academia, among others. In each of these sectors during the last 20 years, prominent organizations have faced embarrassing claims involving comparable patterns of outrageous, abusive and sometimes illegal conduct.

What also is not unique are the arguments raised by some as to why NFL locker rooms must operate with a special set of rules. It’s common for certain workplaces to adopt and pass on their own rituals.

When such conduct is challenged publicly, those involved say that they are operating in a one-of-a-kind environment requiring its own special rules to get the job done and develop others. As examples:

·       Physicians and surgeons who berate colleagues contend that dealing with life-and-death situations requires them to act in what would otherwise be seen as gross, overbearing and hostile.

·       Lawyers who insult associates will speak to the need to toughen up new lawyers for the rigors of litigation.

·       Corporate leaders who yell at and demean their colleagues say that that’s the way they get the best results and challenge others to succeed.

The NFL is now hearing the same rebuttals from players, and others, who are used to the way the game has been played and arguing that that’s the way it always must be played for best results.

However, NFL media insider Ian Rapoport, citing a league source, said on Friday's edition of NFL Network's "NFL Total Access"that in the wake of Wells’ report, the NFL would take a “very hard look at the locker room culture … and try to come up with some new workplace rules, some non-gray area for players to know what is OK and what is not OK.”

What’s happening is that the NFL is dealing with outdated practices that have never been as intensely challenged in the public eye until now.

As the NFL addresses these challenges, it will face several predictable hurdles. They include getting ownership, management, players and others to appreciate why some behavioral rules are needed; agreeing to change team rules; defining applicable standards; and making them stick.   

Here are some suggestions drawn from other industrial settings that faced the same issues.

Standards of behavior drive improved business performance.As the investigative report concluded, “These incidents cannot be viewed in isolation.They are part of a pattern of abusive, unprofessional behavior that ultimately undermined the offensive line and hurt the entire team.”

Except in instances when service members are being trained to withstand the miseries of interrogation and torture, can anyone identify a single occupation where unrelenting abuse has a positive impact on behavior? The cost of divisive, unprofessional behavior, in terms of declines in productivity and results, among others, is well documented.

Dolphins owner Steve Ross set the issue in perspective: “The NFL locker room is a special place, no doubt, but that does not mean that different rules of decency and respect should be in play. Winning championships is what we are all about, but we cannot do so if any of our family members are challenged from reaching their potential.”

Changing the rules is part of the game. New rules are needed, but that’s nothing new in the NFL. In 2013 there were six changesincluding three dealing with player safety.

In business, rules are changing all the time in terms of what is produced, how it’s produced and where it’s produced. Adjusting is part of the game of business in any organization, not just football. Here, rules are needed to protect team members from abusive conduct which detracts from performance, may be illegal and can be so potent as to cause some to contemplate suicide, as Martin claims to have done. If such behavior can be addressed for on-field conduct to enhance safety and sportsmanlike conduct, doesn’t it make sense for other parts of the workplace as well?

New rules can be learned and applied.The official 2013 NFL Rulebookis 120 pages. Coaches and players learn them and know there are penalties, some of which, when broken, have cost games. Has anyone heard a general manager, coach or player say that there are too many rules for professionals to master? They learn and apply them – it’s part of the game. Surely, NFL players can absorb and apply a few simple rules of conduct within the locker room, on the field and in other team-related social situations.  

Further, the rules cover principles that can be applied to the locker room and team interactions.

Article 1: Prohibited Acts: There shall be no unsportsmanlike conduct. This applies to any act which is contrary to the generally understood principles of sportsmanship. Such acts specifically include, among others: …

[b] Using abusive threatening or insulting language or gestures to opponents, teammates, officials or representatives of the League;

[c] Using baiting or taunting acts that engender ill will between teams.

As a start, here are some rules that can be clearly understood, particularly in light of the above standards of sportsmanship which are already in place and govern every on-field play. Principles like these are common in industry.

1.     No matter who you are and no matter who you’re communicating with – jokes, personal comments about race, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation don’t belong in banter, texts, emails, in the locker room, on the field, or in teammate interactions.

2.     Avoid taunts about children, spouses, significant others, parents and relatives.

3.     Don’t threaten teammates with physical harm.

4.     Let coaches or team management know if behavior is crossing a line; this can affect performance and cause harm. Matters can be dealt with and need to be for the good of the team.

This is an ongoing leadership responsibility. Finally, great leaders maintain discipline, focus on excellence and set the team mood. Part of their job is to avoid distraction, dysfunction and defeat.

When new rules are implemented, they’ll need to take an active, ongoing role in making sure they are communicated, understood, taken seriously and followed. The Dolphins had rules, policies and periodic meetings lead by the head coach emphasizing the importance of respect.

Clearly, more is needed. This will mean ongoing commitment, communication and active leadership on and off the field. But, as we saw just a few weeks ago, those are the same acts that bring home Super Bowls. 

Stephen Paskoff is a former EEOC trial attorney and the president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI, Inc.,which provides ethicsand compliance trainingthat helps many of the world's leading organizations build and maintain inclusive, legal, productive and ethical workplaces. Paskoff can be contacted at

Stephen Paskoff is a former EEOC trial attorney and the president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI, Inc.,which provides ethicsand compliance trainingthat helps many of the world's leading organizations build and maintain inclusive, legal, productive and ethical workplaces.

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