Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito, left, and tackle Jonathan Martin stand on the field in July during an NFL football practice in Davie, Fla.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Jed Hughes was an assistant coach under Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll with the Steelers in the 1980s, the extent of rookie hazing was telling them they had complimentary turkeys waiting for them at a local grocery store. When the rookies arrived and asked for their free turkeys, the joke was on them.
Things have changed a lot in the 24 years Hughes has been out of coaching, but he knows from experience in his current job that one thing remains a constant for successful sports organizations -- the ones with quality leadership thrive while those lacking ultimately falter.
Hughes, who is now vice chairman of the executive search firm Korn/Ferry and head of its global sports practice, said the root of the problems in the NFL with bullying and hazing are due to leadership voids in the locker room and coaching ranks.
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Last week in Miami, the curtain to an NFL locker room was drawn open for the world to see, and it was not a pleasant view.
Jonathan Martin, a second-year offensive lineman for the Dolphins, left the team after a lunch-room prank and has not returned. It was later reported that Martin had been harassed by at least one teammate.
Richie Incognito, who played alongside Martin on the offensive line, was indefinitely suspended from the team after a voicemail revealed he used a racial slur and threatened Martin's family. An NFL investigation is ongoing.
"The big question in my mind is leadership," said Hughes, who left coaching in 1990 to enter the business world. "You didn't get that situation with the Steelers because you had Joe Greene and Jack Lambert in the locker room. You had a great locker room that prevented that. It's the leadership that is driving the culture of the team. Miami has struggled in recent years and maybe the reason is their leadership."
Hazing happens on some level with all 32 NFL teams. Minus the racial overtones and threatening language, it can be viewed by older players and coaches as a necessary way to hold rookies accountable and indoctrinate them into a team setting.
During the 2008 season, Mike Tomlin's second season as Steelers coach, rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall had to carry a football with him at all times after fumbling twice in a preseason game.
Anyone who knocked the ball from his hands was rewarded with $100, courtesy of Mendenhall.
Other Steelers players have been taped to goal posts in training camp and it is routine for rookies to shell out money for breakfast and a big tab at a restaurant once in a while.
Tomlin said the Steelers have procedures in place that prevent bullying and extremes forms of hazing. And while he acknowledges there are complicated relationships involved in every team, he said his mission with the Steelers is to mentor younger players in a positive manner rather than tearing them down.
"We take a simple approach in that young players can be quality reasons why we are successful," Tomlin said. "So if they are capable and willing to help us in our efforts in terms of what we desire to get done as a football team, then we are all committed to helping them help us. I think our veteran players embrace that and have mentor-like relationships with our guys."
The Steelers have their rookie rituals and initiations, but they seem tame when compared to what took place in Miami.
"Hiding your stuff, or putting popcorn in your car, that's having fun," rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones said. "We have fun. We enjoy each other. I don't see anyone disrespecting one another or anyone having problems with anyone else. I can't see that happening here. When you go over the line like that, that's uncalled for."
Rookie safety Shamarko Thomas hasn't had an issue with any of the initiations he has had to endure in his first season with the Steelers.
"Buying breakfast, I feel like I can do that," Thomas said. "They don't ask anything big of us. They take us under their wing. They take us out to dinner. They pay us back. It's not a big deal."
Ryan Clark, the Steelers' player representative for the NFL Players Association and a 12-year veteran, had to buy breakfast and coffee for his veteran teammates when he was a rookie with the Giants in 2002. One veteran became upset when he brought a regular coffee when he was told to bring a cappuccino.
"It wasn't people belittling me or name-calling," Clark said. "If there had been, sometimes you have to step up. I think I would have said something, but I'm more vocal than most. Most guys just try to keep their head down and do what the veteran asks, so it's tough.
"Everyone has gone through rituals. It's going to happen. But you don't want to put someone through so much to where they break down mentally. I think we do a very good job of policing that here, making sure guys are comfortable in the locker room and making sure guys do understand the things they have to go through that everyone else went through, but also understand that we're more big brothers than slave-drivers."
The Sun Sentinel reported Tuesday that Miami coaches asked Incognito to "toughen up" Martin, who missed some voluntary workouts in the spring.
Clark does not believe it is the responsibility of players to toughen up teammates.
"It's not necessarily a player's job," he said. "That's why you have coaches. You deal with and talk to your teammates in the way you feel [is right]. I feel you should always be respectful but in a way you see fit to motivate and help them be their best. Belittling a guy and being tough on a guy to an extent to where you break him, I don't think any coach would want that from any player."
Hughes also believes it is the head coach's responsibility to discipline players. Under Noll, players were toughened up by fellow players, but only through competition, Hughes said.
"The way you toughen someone up is you practice physically," he said. "You practice hard. The media in Pittsburgh used to be shocked on Fridays when we would line up the No. 1 defense against the No. 1 offense for a goal-line drill. Four plays at the end of practice. Those young players that were able to thrive in that environment were the ones we knew could play for us."
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com or on Twitter @rayfitt1.
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