This isn’t a column about Jonathan Martin, the former Stanford offensive lineman whose NFL future remains in question after he left the Miami Dolphins last week after reportedly being bullied by fellow lineman Richie Incognito. This isn’t a column about bullying — I’ll leave that to the psychologists and experts to deal with. Instead, the Martin incident raises a new point: What should relationships be like within a locker room?
The darkest point of the Lane Kiffin era at USC wasn’t the debacle with Washington State or at Arizona State. It wasn’t missing out on a big-time recruit. For me, the cratering of his tenure was what happened after USC’s loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl last December. The details are hazy, but multiple reports tell of USC players fighting among themselves in the locker room following the 21-7 loss.
That was an awful way to end last season, but the Trojans appear to have moved on from the ugly event. USC’s next opponent, California, should be preparing for the Trojans this week. The Golden Bears, however, have become wrapped up in a situation of their own.
Details are still emerging, but on Friday, Fabiano Hale, a freshman running back for Cal, was hospitalized after a locker room altercation with a teammate, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. UC Berkeley police confirmed that two players were involved in an altercation in a statement released Monday.
Fighting seems natural in the game of football. There have been rules put into place to curb violence, but jarring hits still turn the needle. Just ask South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, whose vicious hit on Michigan’s Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl last year was SportsCenter’s “Top Play” for 45 straight days.
The brutal but non-accidental tackles can be tolerated. I’m fine with small sideline scuffles between opposing teams. For players, football is more of a lifestyle than a game, and emotions are bound to run amuck in any given game.
The buck stops there, though. It’s hard to expect more than 100 players to become best friends by virtue of being on the same team together. Many do, and many do not. I understand that tensions might flare between football teammates, whether it’s over poor play, competing for playing time or anything in between. Violence and bullying, however, are never the answers.
The idea of making life a little bit more difficult for rookies has been around in football almost as long as the sport’s existence. Freshman players at USC carry water during spring practices, for example, and rookies in the NFL pay for veterans’ dinners among other activities. It’s one thing to show a young teammate the ropes; it’s another to try to tie them down with that rope.
The idea of superiority is not confined to sports. Being a good teammate, however, is about more than superiority — it’s about respect. Every member of a team has to have respect for one another, and I would never try to physically harm or personally attack someone I respect. I’m not going out on a limb by saying that Martin’s being bullied; Hale’s fight with a teammate and USC’s locker room brawl were all situations in which respect was lost and tempers boiled over.
Part of this, of course, ties back to the search for USC’s next football coach. In every post-game conference, interim head coach Ed Orgeron has focused more on his pride in his players than the intricacies of the team’s game plan.
I don’t toss around the term lightly, but Coach O really does seem to love his players, and the feeling seems to be mutual. Kiffin praised his players plenty throughout his tenure, but his coyness made it hard to discern whether the praise was sincere. Orgeron acts as if he would step into a lion’s den, fight, and likely win, for his players.
According to reports, Martin never approached Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin about the issue. You can’t blame Philbin directly, but a coach should be among the first people a player having issues with a teammate would go to.
A coach should be a leader on the field and mentor off it. The USC coaching search will span from Seattle (Steve Sarkisian) to Nashville (James Franklin), but after the Hale and Martin incidents, perhaps Haden should take into account the ability to make the right calls off the field as well as on Saturdays.
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