Gene Collier: How to be nice, according to NFL



Sooner or later the Steelers will be getting a visit from the NFL's Chief Human Relations Officer, one Robert Gulliver, as part of the league's purportedly pro-active 2014 Be Nice Tour.

That's only what it should be called; I'm not aware of any particular working title, but it's clear the NFL really wants the inhabitants of its locker rooms, coaches included, to be nice to each other.

Or at least nicer.

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A 50 percent reduction, for example, in the number of graphic sexual remarks directed at a teammate's mother, would be counted as progress, however insufficient.

The Be Nice Tour reportedly started this week in Atlanta, but it probably should have kicked off in Miami, the ground zero of Not Very Nice At All when it comes to locker room comportment, unless you include harassment, racism, bullying, homophobia and intolerance as part of a typical day at the office.

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The Dolphins, you'll remember, got lit up on such charges in the exhaustive league-commissioned report by Ted Wells, so there's evidently a lingering suspicion on Park Avenue that the percentage of malevolent maniacs in locker rooms league-wide might be, what's that saying, above the line.

"We're not worried about that at all," said Steelers first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier after Wednesday's OTAs. "I know I'm in a great program. I'm going to do whatever I can as a rookie, no matter what it is. I don't feel like any of us [rookies] are worried about [bullying].

"We're just worried about learning this playbook. I feel like everyone's been getting to know each other, and it's been a great atmosphere."

Shazier said he had no special insight on the issue, despite the fact that his father, Vernon J. Shazier, has been the Dolphins' team chaplain the past five years.

"Honestly when we talk, it's mostly about family stuff," Shazier said. "He's team chaplain, but I don't think he's in the locker room much."

The locker room is a dandy place to start, but the broader effort to improve the NFL's culture would have a better chance at success if the front offices took the matter just as seriously. Did the home office notice, for example, that the Dolphins added three players last month who were thrown off their college teams for various reasons, none of which I'll bet was studying too hard?

If the bosses won't take the Be Nice message seriously, why would the employees?

The Steelers aren't expecting Mr. Gulliver until training camp, but the NFL reportedly is sending a three-person team of seminarians to all 32 teams. If any uncertainty exists on the exact date, I don't think that's because the league wants it to be like a fire drill, with NFL agents swooping in like ATF special ops hoping to find someone sobbing in a restroom.

"We've had these initiatives from the league, and we've had suggestions and mandatory seminar types of things on a number of subjects before, but I don't think there's ever been anything this specific," said Steelers president Art Rooney II. "If you'd have asked me, 'Do we have this problem in our locker room?' I would have said no. But by the same token, does it hurt to remind everybody about respect and how you treat people? It certainly can't hurt. It's worth doing and hopefully, if there are guys out there who need a reminder of how to act, it can be helpful to them."

Improving the workplace culture in this business, however, isn't as simple as organizing a night at the symphony or forming a book club with discussion groups.

This is a culture with rooted professional protocols, some of which remain potentially hazardous, including the hazing of young players. Two months from now at Saint Vincent College, veterans will leave their helmets and shoulder pads on the lawn to be carried to the locker room by rookies. Rookies will sing in the dining hall. Those are quaint traditions, but now and again, someone will crash through the wall that separates the quaint from the menacing, the honored social traditions from the twisted social pathologies.

A year ago at this time, Miami's Jonathan Martin was just hoping something would change at his workplace, but when fall came, he was right back taking on enough daily harassment and racist taunting from fellow offensive linemen that he would eventually contemplate killing himself. No culture, not even jock culture, should harbor or ignore such malignancies.

Nobody should have to sit waiting for Gulliver before implementing what figures to be his basic premise.

Be nice.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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