INDIANAPOLIS — This could be as good a time as there has ever been for an openly gay player in the NFL. The league will be watching.
In the wake of the bullying scandal in Miami, executives from teams around the league gathered for the annual scouting combine spoke Thursday about being on guard to ensure their locker rooms are respectful and tolerant – especially with Michael Sam expected to soon become the first openly gay player in NFL history.
Predictably, the executives said a culture of respect was already in place with their clubs before Richie Incognito, the Dolphins offensive lineman who led the extreme hazing detailed last week in an NFL-ordered report, became an infamous name. But while there haven’t been many major signs of response to the scandal, some tangible signs of change have emerged.
Teams have begun to include language in coaches’ contracts that forces assistants to act with more tolerance than some of the Dolphins s taff did. The move is designed to limit a team’s liability if another Miami-like situation were to emerge with another club.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman confirmed that change, first reported by ESPN.
“I think because it’s so much in light right now, that you have to monitor the locker room,” Spielman said. “It’ll be interesting to see once we get down to the owners meetings in March. I’m sure that’ll be a subject that’ll be talked about.”
Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, drawing an overflow crowd of reporters in his first appearance since the report came out, forcefully reiterated his responsibility for all that happens to his team and promised a “better workplace.”
“I have to do a better job. I’m going to look at every way — the way we educate, the way we communicate, the way we talk to one another,” Philbin said. “I’m going to look at every avenue.”
Reaction from the other 31 teams to the bullying report was far more muted, but everyone must deal with the questions about Sam, the Missouri defensive end projected to be drafted in the middle rounds.
Talking about harmony is easy in the offseason, of course, but maintaining an atmosphere of respect and tolerance is another story once dozens of players are thrown together. Clearly, though, this issue will be scrutinized this year, with Sam entering the league and the Dolphins trying to repair their image.
“You have to have strong veteran leadership in the locker room,” new Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith said. “As the head football coach I have to have a pulse on what is going on in the locker room. Rely on a lot of people. Have a relationship where information comes to me. No, we are not going to change what we’ve done. Our program has always been about acceptance. Everybody feeling like they are part. Everybody feeling good about coming to work every day in an environment where they can do their best.”
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