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Byrne Identity: Thugs, Bullies? Is That The NFL?

Posted Nov 8, 2013

Kevin Byrne details the Ravens’ hazing policy and how rookies are usually surprised by the lack of hazing.


Thugs, Bullies? Is That The NFL?

Because of the turmoil created by the Dolphins’ saga involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, much has been said all week about players in the NFL

Some columnists have written that the NFL is filled with bullies, some of whom are thugs. Others have said the NFL culture creates a group of mean-spirited men bent on physically destroying each other.

Those generalizations are unfair.

Indeed, the NFL has had and includes some thugs. Bullying has occurred. Hazing does exist.

But it's not common.

Ravens And Hazings

When John Harbaugh addressed his first Ravens squad on the opening night of training camp in 2008, he talked about what type of team we would be. He talked about players having each other’s backs, about how we would not just win a championship, but become a championship team, and he addressed rookie hazing.

“We don’t want to be a team that treats a teammate with disrespect, do we? We’re a team in every sense of the word. We don’t tear each other down. We lift each other up. Isn’t that who we want to be? We don’t abuse each other. We help each other,” Harbaugh told that team.

“We don’t want to be that team that mistreats rookies, that hazes them, right? Let’s help each other become better. We won’t be a hazing team. Everybody OK with that?”

The players nodded.

Now, we do some things to rookies that I consider fun. They have to buy food and bring it to our charter flights. All rookies sing for their teammates in evening meetings at least once in training camp. Some have to carry a veteran’s helmet after a practice. This is not hazing. It’s not harassment. It’s fun. It’s almost orientation.

Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens’ general manager, carried a heavy film projector on Browns charters when he was a rookie in 1978. Ozzie bought donuts for the offense on Saturday mornings. “That’s what rookies had to do then. That type of thing helps you become part of the team,” Newsome said.

Do Coaches Or Teammates Threaten Each Other?

In some ways, yes. But, in most cases, it is done to bring a player to a higher level by inspiring him to play with more physicality.

Ray Lewis, who clearly became one of the great leaders in the history of professional sports, called out teammates in meetings. If he saw a player, especially a new veteran or a rookie, not play with the physicality common to Ravens defenses, Ray would speak up. “We don’t play that way here. We all run to the ball. We all run through the guy with the ball. That’s who we are.”

The message was clear. Play like a Raven, or Ozzie will find someone else who does.

Newsome had a teammate in Cleveland who played safety. The player was intelligent and made interceptions, but he did not greet tackling running backs with much enthusiasm. The-then head coach Marty Schottenheimer tried a number of ways to inspire this player to be more physical. It didn’t work until Marty showed the defense the film of a recent game. The player in question turned down a tackle on an outside running play.

Coach Schottenheimer stopped the film and instructed the group to watch the safety as he showed the play again. He then turned to the player and said: “If you turn down a tackle again, you won’t be a Cleveland Brown. Is that clear?”

The player suddenly became a more physically aggressive player.

Was Marty bullying? Was Ray intimidating a teammate?

Don’t think so.

Players Have To And Do Step Up

In my first year in the NFL in 1977, I worked with the then-St. Louis Cardinals. One of our star players was guard Conrad Dobler, who was described as the “dirtiest player in football.” Dobler delighted in the reputation and played up to it. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline: “The NFL’s Dirtiest Player.” Phyllis George of CBS-TV did a feature on him – in a jail cell.

Dobler was constantly getting in fights with teammates during “live” training camp practices. The head coach, Don Coryell – a former Marine Corps boxer, had enough one day and yelled: “Dobler, you get in another fight, you’re going to fight me.”

A few minutes later, Dobler started punching Walt Patulski, a huge defensive end from Notre Dame. Coryell came running over and broke up the fight and then turned to Dobler and said: “Let’s go!”

Oh boy. … I could already see the headlines.

Conrad threw off his helmet and stepped toward the head coach. Instantly Dan Dierdorf – yes, that Dan, the Hall of Fame offensive lineman and broadcaster for CBS-TV working our game this Sunday – bear hugged Dobler from behind, picked up the feisty guard and carried him 20 yards away from the coach. “Connie, you are not going to fight the head coach and stop hitting your teammates,” Dierdorf said.

Dobler hit fewer teammates after that.

Ravens Surprised By Lack Of Hazing

When Arthur Jones arrived here in 2010, he expected to be harassed by the veterans. “I heard all the crazy stuff about heads and eyebrows being shaved, being taped and thrown into cold tubs. It was actually first class here,” Jones said. “We don’t do anything here that can be considered disrespectful or hurt anyone’s manhood.

“In fact, they gave me a mentor, Cory Redding, who really helped me become a pro. Our program is huge.”

Harry Swayne, who played 15 NFL seasons and is the Ravens’ director of player development, is proud of the mentoring program. “Rookies come in here dealing with a lot of things: new place, new people, away from home and their comfortable colleges, the speed of the game, the amount of work that goes into being an NFL player. That’s a lot to handle. They need help. Our veteran mentors look out for the best interests of our rookies. The mentoring works here because our guys really do love and respect each other. They watch out for one another.

“We have some fun, but we’re all about helping so the team can get better,” Swayne explained.

Torrey Smith has been mentored and served as a mentor. “I can’t see what happened in Miami happening here. If you’re going to bully a player you want to help you win, that doesn’t make sense. Here, it’s more of a welcoming than a tearing down. I don’t want to disrespect a locker room (Miami) that I know nothing about. I just don’t see something like that happening here,” Smith said.

Smith Ready For The Bengals

We can all learn something from this impressive 24-year-old receiver and team leader. Torrey also talked about the team and Sunday’s game against the Bengals. “We’re practicing well, we’re focused, and we’re loose. We’re not pointing fingers. We can struggle like we are right now, and everyone will stick together, not flinch, not jump ship. It will be that much more special when we come out of this, because we stuck together and gutted it out,” Smith said.

Love that guy.

Let’s gut it out Sunday. Let’s beat the Bengals.

Talk with you next week,

Kevin

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