The NFL, Bullying and The Next Big Thing

November 7, 2013

In 1998, 1999 and 2000 I went to the NFL Camps of the Baltimore Ravens and the Minnesota Vikings, and I talked about behavior.  We discussed sexual assault and date rape.  The players were unusually frank and raucous in each case, and the youngest players seemed amazed that they now had a public persona to master.  What struck me was that each year, one of the veterans (and marquee players) stood up when the less experienced players began to argue with the idea of respect and consent, civility and empathy and put a stop to the silliness.  I remember feeling profoundly moved when one Viking (whose picture was on my child’s wall as part of a trio of much-lauded players) stood up and said, “This is for real, guys.  We have a responsibility to the team, to each other and to the people we care about.”

I can’t speak for other teams, but I know there was hazing.  Late to the Ravens due to a bomb threat in downtown Baltimore, I learned they made use of the time by having the freshman players stand on  chairs and sing. I was curious and asked about the extent of the hazing. The coach chuckled about it, and told me how it used to be.  Brutality and humiliation.  No more under him he said.  Maybe carrying the equipment but no cruelty.

The headlines this week about the Miami Dolphin’s situation and the culture of hazing that exists in all or part of the NFL is not new news.  Statements in the media suggest that the degree of hazing varies from team to team, as does the involvement of coaches in setting the tone and calling out the limits.  In fact, several former players have discussed their experiences with hazing varying from silly initiation rites to outright cruelty; those who have survived them often claim the experiences have “bonded them,” or “made them stronger.”    Things get more interesting when you read the quotes from “the personnel men” at the NFL;

“”Locker room culture will never be understood unless you’ve lived or have been around it,” said a personnel man. “This is another ploy in the league’s ‘player safety’ book. Incognito knew who to try. You never heard anything like this come from John Jerry or Mike Pouncey. Instead of being a man and confronting him, he acted like a coward and told like a kid.

Aha.  Now we are getting to the dirty little secret behind bullying.  It is often attached to a visceral sense of exceptionalism and a pattern of enabling.  Once exposed, there is wringing of hands and claims it won’t be tolerated, but that history of enabling renders the organizations’ decrying incidents of bullying wholly unbelievable.  And it is not just the NFL.

The worst bullying cases I have encountered in the last twenty years have occurred in the professions, in academia and in other enterprises that involve super stardom.  The superstars may not live on posters in my child’s room, but they have marquee status on the firm’s letterhead, the university’s endowed chairs, the surgery suite and the charity’s boards.  These are the people who recognize their authority and power and abuse it. The organization, rather than demanding leadership, cowers in response to their misbehavior.  Bullying becomes a badge of success and is passed from generation to generation as a privilege of accomplishment. Those who survive are rewarded with promotions, tenure or other status and dollar-driven rewards. The ability to inure oneself to bullying behavior becomes part of the DNA of success, and the DNA of the organization.  Rather than condemn the rituals and behavior that probably thwarted their best work, targets who thrive through it simply emulate the behavior and denigrate those who cannot or will not survive it.  It becomes a badge of courage.

The hardest part of my work, which at times involves uncovering and at other times involves trying to intervene with, workplace misconduct, is that despite the rush of fear that organizations feel in the face of a complaint,  many of them have become inured to a culture based on an erroneous belief that people will do better when they have been subject to some “toughening up.”  One physician recently told me she cannot respect new doctors because they are protected by rules that limit the number of hours they can be asked to work consecutively in their training; “We would operate under conditions that seemed second only to death in the pain they caused, and I think that made us better,” she said.

There is nothing that actually supports the value of humiliation, abuse, embarrassment, exploitation or terror as a positive source of bonding, motivation or future performance.  There is nothing to be found that suggests that any positive organizational metric is associated with the countenance of bullying or negative hazing.  There is no literature that says being screamed at, called names, threatened, publicly criticized or having things thrown in your direction make you a better employee.  Rather, what emerges when we look at these patterns is a terrible dose of inadequate leadership, lazy ethics and a dull acceptance of the status quo.  This is where the work of combating bullying needs to focus.  It is well established that engagement and a sense of safety and dignity go a long way towards creating innovative, creative and productive employees, whether it is in pro sports or the corporate world.  To all of the organizations that say that this behavior is unacceptable, I issue the following challenge; make bullying behavior a toxin to success.  Make it clear by your words and actions that bullying behavior will block even a super star from further rewards, including promotion.  Expand your harassment policies to include non-protected class bullying and charge the folks at your highest level with promoting those policies and walking the talk.  Protect your whistle blowers and recognize that crawling out under the crushing weight of abuse to report it is an act of profound courage and bravery. Live up to those lofty mission statements that always include “respect” and “dignity.”

The next big thing?  A hard stop on bullying. A commitment to a culture where we name it and we rush to support it’s targets. A decision, collectively and organizationally that it really is as old and useless as a canister of DDT.  It’s a poison we can all now condemn and replace with smarter, safer alternatives.

For those not in the know, there is a bill floating around that would bring US states to the level of civility of most other first world nations. The Healthy Workplace Bill has been introduced in 23 states and passed in none. While opponents continue to throw out arguments that it is vague and bad for business, it is clear the law’s time has come.  It is time for a hard stop, and if the law can help, it should.

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