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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFL holding players to higher standard

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Published:   |   Updated: July 20, 2014 at 07:11 AM

— Just another day at the office won’t quite cut it at the National Football League anymore.

Branching out from its emphasis on player safety on the field, America’s most popular sport has turned its $9 billion attention to the mental health of its locker rooms.

Rocked by a hazing and taunting scandal in Miami that led to a searing 144-page report, the NFL plans to dispatch ambassadors to all 32 teams this summer, reminding organizations that respect and proper rules of conduct should not end at the locker room door.

The Rams strode into the national spotlight by drafting Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who will become the NFL’s first openly gay player if he makes Jeff Fisher’s final roster after reporting with St. Louis rookies Tuesday.

“I wouldn’t have taken him,’’ said former Bucs and Colts coach Tony Dungy, now an analyst for NBC. “Not because I don’t believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it.

“It’s not going to be totally smooth … things will happen.’’

The Rams say they are ready for the scrutiny and the dynamics.

“There’s a 90-man roster right now,’’ said St. Louis wide receiver T.J. Moe, who played with Sam at Missouri. “It doesn’t go 89, and then Michael Sam’s over there — this is the gay team, this is the straight team. Michael Sam is on this team and he’s treated just like anyone else.’’

Not every player is as enlightened as Moe ... and Sam knows it.

NFL locker rooms are no place for the thin-skinned. Players routinely chide each other on a range of issues from fashion choices to music preferences. The N-word is heard often, expressed openly and with no apparent regret.

“Banning the N-word, good luck with that one,’’ Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline said.

Still, the NFL appears determined to make civility a watchword in the inner sanctum.

“It’s a behavior change and we feel it starts with leadership,’’ said Fisher, a longtime member of the NFL’s influential Competition Committee. “That’s leadership with the head coach, the owner or the general manager, but also leadership on your football team.’’

Those cornerstones of leadership were found sorely missing in Miami, according to a report commissioned by the league to investigate allegations of bullying.

In his review, defense lawyer Ted Wells concluded a “pattern of harassment’’ was initiated by three Dolphins toward offensive lineman Jonathan Martin and an assistant trainer. In this “classic case of bullying,’’ Martin walked off the team in October.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says respect in the workplace has emerged as a top priority.

“Locker rooms are unique,’’ he said. “And there are unique things we have to think about. We want them to be professional. We want them to be comfortable, everyone in that locker room, so they can focus on doing their job. That’s what we all owe them.’’

Talking about tolerance in the workplace is one thing. Enforcing a more professional code of conduct is quite another.

“You have to have strong, veteran leadership in the locker room,’’ Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. “As a head football coach, I have to have a pulse on what’s going on. I have to rely on a lot of different people and have relationships where information comes to me.’’

In the aftermath of the Dolphins scandal, NFL head coaches could be motivated to take a more active role off the field.

After the film breakdowns and the big speeches, a little small talk can go a long way.

“It’s not the players’ locker room, it’s our locker room,’’ Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “It’s important there’s a presence of coaches there. Your leaders let guys know what is acceptable and unacceptable, but it’s also important for a coach to have interaction with his players.’’

“As a coach, you can definitely play a role,’’ said new Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt, who led the 2008 Cardinals to the Super Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. “Communication is the most important thing. The locker room is a very diverse culture, lots of different guys from lots of different backgrounds. Somehow, they make it work. A lot of it comes down to the character of the people on your team.’’

“As a head coach, you lay the foundation for how you want things to be done,’’ Chargers coach Mike McCoy said. “And when you have good leaders, they manage the rest. Personally, I’ll be in the locker room four or five times a day.’’

“For me, I want structure without the feeling of structure,’’ Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “I want everybody in the building to know what is acceptable and I expect our guys to be professional. At the same time, I understand that individuals are individuals and I want to give them the latitude to do that.’’

“You have to delegate,’’ Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “I’m not a micro-manager. You count on everybody to send the same message.’’

“My personal opinion is that if you’re a head coach that does not go into the locker room, you’re not going to be a head coach for long,’’ Fisher said. “We have a responsibility to go in there and the players need to see the head coach in the locker room. If you allow that environment to become a sanctuary, then you lose control real quickly.’’

St. Louis wouldn’t have drafted Sam in the seventh round if Fisher and team management didn’t believe the organization could handle all the extra attention.

When Sam held his introductory news conference at Rams Park, the media horde included NBC Nightly News, the NFL Network, ESPN, Fox Sports 1, CNN, CBS Sports and the Oprah Winfrey Network.

They weren’t there to check out first-round draft picks Greg Robinson and Aaron Donald.

“All of us in the draft room were aware of the magnitude of the decision, how it would be a pivot in history,’’ Rams general manager Les Snead said. “Michael is the first, but somewhere in the future, guess what? He’s just going to be a name that a kid in middle school has got to memorize. We won’t think it’s anything special because it will be normal.’’

Right now, it’s anything but.

“If you’re going to take a leadership position by drafting Michael, you have to expect the good and the bad,’’ said Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff, a former Bucs executive. “We’re prepared for it, and I think we’ll shine through it.’’

Sam is already a trailblazer, but he has more on his agenda than opening doors. Like any late-round draft choice, his top priority is surviving the cutdown process to the final 53.

Adding to the challenge, the Rams boast one of the deepest and most talented defensive lines in the league.

“They respect me as a human being and as a football player,” Sam said. “All the older guys are showing me the ropes so I can see how the program is run. I’m telling you, they get after it. I’ve got to step my game up to compete with this defensive line. I thought our defensive line at Mizzou was pretty tough — this is a whole new level.’’

Even if Sam makes the team, he might have more hurdles to clear.

Despite the NFL’s crackdown on intolerance, strong leaders will need to emerge if Sam’s lifestyle becomes an issue.

“As far as I’m concerned, I felt like I was the captain and I was going to make things go a certain way,’’ said Hall of Fame middle linebacker Harry Carson, who policed the Giants locker room. “Nobody was going to be abused. We had a player on our team and everybody in the room knew he was gay. The subject never came up. Nobody said anything to him because he was our teammate and we protected him.’’

Nets center Jason Collins, the first openly gay player in the NBA, said he experienced only one encounter last season with an opposing player who made a defamatory comment about his orientation.

After 40 years in baseball, Rays manager Joe Maddon has seen his share of prejudice in professional sports.

“Of course it’s naive to think there won’t be any problems surrounding Michael Sam,’’ Maddon said. “People are going to carry their judgments wherever they go. Once his teammates get to know him, hopefully they’ll understand his intentions are to win football games. But you’re going to have to put up with a group of people who will try to place their mores on everybody else.

“Over time, that noise will go away. In the meantime, Michael Sam needs to be supported. It always takes a couple of years from that first moment, that seminal moment, for things to be more accepted in sports.

“I’m saying that five years from now, it’ll become part of the fabric, a non-issue.’’

ikaufman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7833

Twitter: @IKaufmanTBO

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