Locker rooms and clubhouses are gross. Jock straps. Dried sweat. Socks. Back acne. Stereos blasting Train and Big 'N Rich. Every product labeled AXE. Wrinkled old magazine cuttings of women in bikinis holding tools. Hairy naked asses everywhere. The locker room is a place you can't visit without being forever changed. It's disgusting in every way you can imagine, and quite a few you haven't thought of yet.
But this is not how professional athletes see locker rooms. Athletes see them as the one sanctuary from the outside world … the only places left for them that are real. In the locker room, there are no reporters. There are no wives or girlfriends. There are no agents, or lawyers, or autograph seekers, or hangers-on, or bill collectors, or any of the other countless number of people who pop up around athletes, wanting something from them. It may be the only place they feel safe to be themselves.
Thus: The locker room is sacred. This is the one thing every athlete can agree upon. What happens in the locker room stays in the locker room. When you gather several dozen young adult men, all of whom have been treated as special and generally unassailable their entire lives, and toss them into a confined space together, frictions and chaos is going to ensue, but that's fine -- all that matters is that it stays there. This is why athletes and coaches are always so angry about anonymous leaks to the press about personnel issues; it lets the outside world in. This is the accepted wisdom of professional sports: Keep it in the locker room. It is the important rule. It is all that really matters.
You've seen this in much of the reaction to the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin business. While public relations necessitates managed responses and appropriate scolding of Incognito -- the story has crossed over to non-sports media, which always requires an extra-careful level of damage control -- the undercurrent is unmistakable: This should have stayed in the locker room. Some athletes are more open about it, some just sort of hint at it, but this is what the vast majority of them are thinking, even if they have sympathy for Martin and/or think Incognito is an asshole: Martin should have kept this in-house.
Now, it is worth discussing the inherent unfairness of this criticism. The general complaint is that Martin should have gone to his coaches, where this could have been handled from within. If Incognito was causing him such pain, let the coaches sort it out; they're the ones in charge and supposed to handle stuff like this.
This is asking a lot of Martin, particularly when, as the Sun-Sentinel reported, coaches had specifically put Incognito in charge of Martin, of "toughening him up." Now, even if you argue that this is an acceptable thing for coaches to tell a player, this tilts the power balance in an irreversible way. Martin can't go to coaches to complain about Incognito's treatment of him; they're the ones who explicitly gave Incognito this power over him in the first place. Handling this in-house would have made it worse for Martin, by definition. Nevermind the fact that Martin didn't, like, leak this to the Miami Herald or anything, or come out with some tell-all Dan LeBatard interview. He left the team for personal difficulties, and then all this came out. Maybe Martin would have known this would all come out, and maybe he didn't, but the public airing of all this was not the intention.
But this all belies the larger point: Should the locker room really be this pristine place of private refuge? Sure, athletes want it to be, and with good reason -- if I had that many people tugging at me in every direction every day, I'd want a place to hide and just be myself for a while as well. But that doesn't make it right. That's to say: If locker rooms are a place where there are no rules, where everything is settled from within, when the outside world has no say over anything that goes on in there … well, they're freaking illegal.
There isn't any place like this anymore. If a private company is abusing its employees, or providing an unsafe or hostile work environment, that's against the law. Business culture -- and a locker room is a place of business, jock straps or not -- isn't allowed to just set its own rules to govern itself. If Morgan Stanley has set up a harassing environment for its employees, it sets itself for lawsuits and potential prosecution. It's the same way in your workplace. This is federal law. It's why your HR person is so annoying and persnickety. These rules are in place for a reason: To protect those that need protecting.
Even the military, which is basically the real-world version of what sports teams pretend to be, recognizes the need for a positive work environment free of this sort of business; as explained by SB Nation's Matt Ufford, a Marine who served in Iraq, "You can't have a lucrative 21st-century business paired with 20th-century ideals of masculinity that violate every H.R. department's litmus test for What Can Get Us Sued. You don't get to demand that all players act like professional adults, and then treat them like lesser employees every week. You don't get to call people weak on the condition of anonymity. You don't run a multi-billion-dollar business while selectively choosing which employees get treated with dignity. It's not being soft; it's being smart, and the Marine Corps has been doing it for almost 20 years. It's time the NFL followed suit."
This is not a pedantic issue. Just because players want the locker room to be a private place that self-polices doesn't mean it actually gets to be. Dolphins players have lined up behind Incognito, essentially blaming Martin for not letting the internal locker room environment do its job, but that mindset is exactly why these laws exist.
As this story goes along, it's becoming more and more clear that this isn't necessarily about hazing, or Richie Incognito, or Jonathan Martin. It's about protecting that sacred locker room atmosphere. You have to be able to be yourself in the locker room, athletes say; it allows you to get out aggression, to have a safe place to vent the pressures of a dangerous, stressful game. You can do and say what you want there. It has to be different.
I get why they want it to be. But it's not different. It's a workplace like any other. I'm sure athletes find this invasion of their locker room, this imposition of outside values on their private world, to be as offensive as anything Richie Incognito ever said to Jonathan Martin. And that's precisely why it's so important that this change happen. Locker rooms don't get to exist outside the laws of the nation. They are not floating in space. This fight isn't about Incognito and Martin, not anymore. It's about this. And like it or not: It's a fight players are going to lose.
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