Can the NFL really afford to keep turning a blind eye toward hazing?
Dez Bryant's refusal to carry teammate's shoulder pads became national story
It put spotlight on hazing, something that 43 states have laws against
Does the league run the risk of being hit with a doozy of a lawsuit?
Every NFL training camp now has swung into full-gear, which means the Dez Dilemma will be on the lips and minds of players, coaches and analysts all over the league. Remarkably, while it wasn't even close to Rosa Parks refusing to sit at the back of the bus, Dez Bryant's refusal to carry Roy Williams' shoulder pads after a Cowboys' practice last month was a landmark moment of sorts for the NFL. And, frankly, hazing no longer can be ignored.
When Bryant defied the long-respected ritual, an assortment of very public and often heated arguments railing for or against the camp tradition ensued. Blogs, columns, Tweets and broadcasts across the country sizzled. But no matter if you fall on the "boys will be boys" side of the issue or consider it an unnecessary degrading act, the NFL should consider enacting some kind of legislation or rules regarding hazing.
I know: It sounds silly to legislate what should be an innocent team-building activity, but the league really no longer has a choice. It's not for reasons of propriety or some bigger social or cultural calling. It's because the league must protect its own backside. It's for the oldest and most resounding reason of all: money and the potential for a doozy of a lawsuit.
It's amazing that a league with so many rules and regulations has built this carefully crafted and lucrative empire, but managed to ignore the kind of legal San Andreas Fault underfoot that would make any H.R. department chief's head spin.
The NFL has rules about what players can wear and when they can wear it. There are rules on socks, shoes, towels. There are rules about flipping a coin and how to call a coin flip. There are rules on end zone celebrations and which numbers a player can and cannot wear. There are rules on taping, Tweeting, when to go to bed, when to wake up, where to sit, where to stand.
There simply are not very many corporate monsters bigger or more meticulously managed than the multi-billion dollar NFL. Yet even the most innocent of hazing chores, like carrying a veteran's shoulder pads to the locker room, could be interpreted as a violation of basic H.R. policy. It's the football equivalent of one employee asking the new guy to go fetch coffee. That might have been OK back in the day, but any H.R. rep worth his or her weight in online sensitivity training will tell you it just doesn't fly anymore.
And just imagine the fun an employee or civil rights attorneys could have with some of the other more humiliating hazing acts NFL players initiate -- most all of which is done with coaches and front-office personnel present.
One retired NFL veteran spoke of the "frank-n-buns" hazing tradition that occurred at a few NFL training camps in recent years. It involved rookies dropping their pants and dropping to all fours on the practice field, clinching a hot dog in their buttocks, and crawling. If the player dropped the hot dog, he was forced to eat it.
Another humiliating act still popular in many camps is tying a rookie to a goalpost and dousing him with water, sports drinks or shaving cream. In the 1980s, one team's hazing tradition involved blindfolding rookies, standing them in a line and telling them to open their mouths. Veterans then made snorting and spitting sounds while tossing raw oysters into the players' mouths and forcing them to swallow.
At the 1998 Saints training camp, rookies were forced to wear pillowcases and run through a gauntlet of players pushing and swinging at them. One player suffered a head injury, another suffered blurred vision. Still, the Saints' incident was the exception. Most hazing traditions and veteran players would not remotely risk injuring high-priced rookies. Humiliating rookies, however, is another story.
But where's the line? More ominously, where's the liability? Especially in this era of real-time news and instant worldwide access to photos, audio and video, you would think the league would be more proactive and protective of its image.
And where has the NFL Players Association and chief DeMaurice Smith been on this issue? The NFLPA's silence has been deafening and perhaps telling regarding hazing. When, coincidentally, Dez Bryant was asked an uncomfortable question regarding his mother during a pre-draft interview with the Dolphins, Smith and the NFLPA wailed. Said Smith: "We need to make sure the men of this league are treated as businessmen."
OK. But once they are signed and delivered, Smith and the NFLPA allow them to be treated like 18-year-old fraternity pledges? There could be liability on both the league's and the NFLPA's part if just one seemingly innocent hazing goes awry and a player files a legal grievance.
You'd like to think most rookies understand it's no big deal getting their hair cut or being forced to sing school songs. It's all part of the initiation. (And for the record, I think Bryant should have picked up the shoulder pads and carried them, just as Kansas City's Eric Berry and others have done this summer.) But more important, it would seem that most players would know that tying someone to a goalpost, dunking a player in an ice-cold water tub or forcing players to drop their pants and crawl around a football field goes beyond reasonable behavior.
Given the latter, it could be argued, even, that Congress would do more good and reach more impressionable youths by stepping in on the hazing issue. Currently, 43 states have anti-hazing laws, and just this week a New Mexico teenager who pleaded guilty to hazing younger members of his high school football team by sodomizing them with broomsticks was sentenced to two years in a juvenile detention center."
NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Ray Anderson says the league has "not had any discussions regarding the hazing issue at clubs, and there is nothing on the radar that I'm aware of to discuss the issue at a league level."
Still, it seems to me that DeMaurice Smith and commissioner Roger Goodell can no longer ignore even the most seemingly innocent incident at an NFL workplace. The NFL is a business. Smith says he wants the players to be treated as businessmen.
By definition, hazing is an act that humiliates, degrades or abuses a person, regardless of that person's willingness to participate. In that sense, the Cowboys and the NFL got off easy when Bryant refused to carry shoulder pads and simply spoke his mind. He could have hired a lawyer.