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February 19, 2014 | From the blogSports

Unnecessary Roughness: Will Leagues and Lawmakers Crack Down On Bullying and Hazing In Sports?

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Domenic Romano

Founder & Managing Partner

In the wake of the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal, the NFL commissioned the Paul, Weiss law firm to do an independent investigation and report on the allegations of misconduct.  Released on February 14, 2014, the report is a call to action for the League to monitor and control abusive workplace conduct.

The report notes: “the NFL is not an ordinary workplace.  Professional football is a rough, contact sport played by men of exceptional size, speed, strength and athleticism.  But even the largest, strongest and fleetest person may be driven to despair by bullying, taunting and constant insults.”  Are sports laws and regulations keeping pace with a continued lack of respect in the locker room? 

The NFL to tackle bullying and hazing

Hazing and bullying occur at every level in the sports world.  From little leagues to professional teams, problems exist.  Children’s teams are developing anti-bullying policies for players, hoping to start a new era of locker room culture from the ground up.

The NFL-commissioned report highlights the pervasiveness of bullying at the professional level.  Although at least half of the fifty states have introduced legislation to combat workplace bullying, no bill has been passed into law.  Despite the sluggishness of lawmakers, the NFL may be taking proactive steps on its own.

This weekend, NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport tweeted, “Final word from a league source: ‘You’re going to see a big cultural change in the NFL.” Expect workplace guidelines forthcoming.”  To work toward these changes, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is reportedly meeting with players to get their opinions on the most appropriate way to approach the hostile work environment.  Jason Avant of the Philadelphia Eagles suggests that the League should include mandatory workshops and programs, harsher fines, more supervision and a defined code of conduct.  Avant says that he was shocked by Paul Weiss’s report, but acknowledges that hazing occurs everywhere.

Are young athletes taught that hazing is okay?

Bullying and hazing are big problems among college and young professional athletes.  Even after video surfaced this winter featuring the hazing of NBA player Anthony Davis during his freshman year at the University of Kentucky, the NCAA chose not to conduct an investigation.

The NCAA hazing handbook requires universities to do their own investigation surrounding any hazing incidents.  Some schools, such as Cornell University are proactive and take hazing seriously.  Last year the school cancelled all men’s fall lacrosse competitions after they found that the team was involved in hazing.  However, a uniform, nationwide standard could protect more athletes and provide a clear definition of what behavior is unacceptable.

At the professional level, Kobe Bryant admits to being hazed as a rookie with the Lakers.  Bryant’s teammate Cedric Ceballos says it was all about fun, stating, “We don’t belittle the guys.”  One slide show portrays Major League Baseball teams hazing rookie players.  While some of this behavior is written off by the players as all in good fun, it is clear these rituals fall under the definition of hazing.

As Paul Weiss’s report concluded, stricter bullying guidelines in sports could “help ensure that players respect each other as professionals and people.”

Combating hate:  Protecting openly gay players

Following this year’s draft, University of Missouri’s Michael Sam is projected to be the NFL’s first openly gay player.  As pioneers like Sam become more forthcoming to teammates and the public at large about their personal lives, bullying and hazing may extend to players’ sexual orientation as well.

ESPN surveyed NFL players to ask how they would react to having an openly gay teammate.  While 44 out of the 51 players surveyed said that sexual orientation of a teammate does not matter to them, 32 reported that they had teammates or coaches who used homophobic slurs last season.  Only 25 believed an openly gay player would be comfortable in an NFL locker room.

These sorts of metrics should be a wakeup call to sports leagues and lawmakers across the nation: boundaries for bullying and hazing need to be established.

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