Football takes young men from the most diverse backgrounds, throws them together and expects harmony. But that can’t happen without a stronger hand, higher standards and better training on tolerance
By Jason Avant,
My wife and I have two young daughters, ages 1 and 3. Lately we’ve thought a lot about how we want to raise them and what it takes to be good parents. One thing is for sure: Once they get to a certain age, they’re going to want more freedom and more responsibility. But if they’re still under our roof, and if they haven’t shown themselves to be trustworthy, should we give them more authority and more freedom? We shouldn’t—not until they earn it.
The NFL is in that position right now. NFL players want freedom, want to do things on our own, want to be able to say: This is our locker room, we govern our own locker room. But have we proved that we’ve earned that?
The situation in Miami and other incidents around the league have compelled the NFL to enforce restrictions. Whatever the league adopts will be unpopular with a segment of players, to be sure. But I believe the NFL has no choice. Too many players have abused too many freedoms.
There were parts of the Wells report that shocked me, especially the language that was used openly among some of the guys. I’ve heard the ‘n’ word used among African Americans, and I even find that completely unacceptable. But I’ve never heard racial slurs used so openly and so freely. The joke about shooting black people was hard to digest, and I couldn’t believe the fines the Dolphins linemen handed out. Hazing, to some extent, happens everywhere. For example, with our team, rookies are in charge of buying chicken or barbeque before road trips. The total cost is something like $100.
The details in the Wells report seem like an atypical locker room, and I want to stress that not all NFL players are like that, and not all players in the Miami locker room are either. The majority of us behave appropriately, and enjoy representing our teams and our communities in the right way. But leaguewide, I do think there needs to be some kind of intervention.
About a month ago I met with commissioner Roger Goodell in Philadelphia, and we talked about ideas like this. We discussed the NFL culture, why it is the way it is, why we need change, and perhaps most importantly, why that change might be so difficult.
You have to rewind to the root of the problem. It begins before players enter the league.
I began playing football my sophomore year of high school in Chicago. I got pretty good pretty quickly, and by senior year I was the top recruit in the state of Illinois. That’s when I noticed people started treating me differently. One day I was just a regular person. Now I was kind of given this position of power. Students, staff members and teachers looked at me in a different way. They kind of winked at my mistakes, instead of trying to correct me. That’s part of the problem: too much empowerment without proving we’ve earned it. A lot of players aren’t used to being held accountable.
The other part is of the problem is a lack of education about diversity and tolerance.
I think back to my freshman year at Michigan, and what it’s like at pretty much any college program. In high school you’re with kids from the same town who are a lot like you. In college all of the sudden your locker room is filled with guys from every background—a guy from inner-city Bronx, another one from the backwoods of Iowa, a guy whose parents were nurturing, a guy with gang issues, a guy who is very religious. You put us all in the locker room and expect us to get along with each other. Yet there’s no orientation, and barely any discussion of it. That’s why a lot of times you see the black kids sitting on one end of the lunch room and the white kids on the other.
Then you get to the NFL. Same thing, except now you have a larger pool of guys from even more diverse backgrounds. The NFL rookie symposium covers almost everything, from how to talk to the media to how to handle your money to how to take care of your body. But the one thing that is not highlighted is education about culture and how to assimilate into a workplace with such a diverse demographic.
Plus, the rookie symposium is offered only to drafted players. What about everyone else? There needs to be mandatory workshops and programs. Maybe it’s at OTAs, or in training camp, but it has to be for everyone—whether it’s Peyton Manning or the bottom guy who is playing special teams and barely making the game-day roster. Education needs to be across the board, and consistent. That’s the only way we will respect it.
The most important part of an NFL locker room is leadership. If there isn’t good leadership, one bad apple has potential to corrupt the bunch. In Philadelphia, our franchise has had some great leaders. The spirit of Brian Dawkins, Brian Westbrook and Troy Vincent live on. Their names are mentioned a lot in organizational meetings, and Dawkins can come speak to the team any time he wants. We also have an owner, Jeffrey Lurie, who is hands-on and cordial; he has lunch with some players, and always discusses the mindset and the standards that those earlier guys raised—and I think that standard is extremely important. Why? Look at what happened this season with one of our receivers, Riley Cooper, who was caught on video using the ‘n’ word at a concert. That incident had the potential to divide us. Instead, because of strong team leadership, we worked through the issue together; we forgave Riley and we were able to grow, both as a team and as individuals—Riley included.
As for the new legislation I mentioned earlier, maybe it’s harsher fines for players, or a code of conduct, or more supervision. I’m not quite sure what it will be, but I do know something is necessary.
Right now the NFL has an opportunity. We know this is a league that’s all about making money and all about winning, but here’s a chance for us to demonstrate that we’re more than that. The NFL can be more than just an employer. It can be a parent. With proper structure in place, the NFL can be a support system for someone in the same situation Jonathan Martin was in, and also provide a helping hand to those who hazed him. We can educate young men on the merits of tolerance, and also the value of holding ourselves to higher standards. It can help mold us into productive members of society when we leave this league. Aren’t those the values we want for our kids?
A 2006 fourth-round pick out of Michigan, Jason Avant has played wide receiver for eight seasons with the Eagles. He received the team’s Ed Block Courage Award in 2010.