Bill Curry: Vince Lombardi wouldn't tolerate racism in locker room; culture set at the top
Dolphins fired coach and trainer after bullying report; he says it shouldn't have come to this
He says football is violent, intense, needs leaders to set firm standards for alpha males
Curry: Famed Dolphins coach Don Shula let players have fun with limits; winning was focus
Editor’s Note: Bill Curry was a center in the NFL for 10 seasons: with the Green Bay Packers (1965-66), Baltimore Colts (1967-72), Houston Oilers (1973) and Los Angeles Rams (1974). He participated in three Super Bowls and two Pro Bowls. He was head coach at Georgia State University, Georgia Tech, the University of Alabama and the University of Kentucky. He has worked as a football analyst for ESPN.
A great football team combines inherent violence with a certain order, always imposed by the coaches and team leaders. Famed Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi allowed very little humor and made it abundantly clear that there would be no racism in his organization. Regardless of intent, any racist remark by a player was deemed malicious and resulted in instant dismissal from the team. The culture was established at the top. Leaders like Willie Davis were the enforcers in the locker room, along with Lombardi’s “War Council,” a group of hand-picked players who communicated directly with him.
The Miami Dolphins would have done well to take a page from Lombardi.
On Wednesday, the Dolphins fired offensive line coach Jim Turner and head athletic trainer Kevin O’Neill. It was the latest flareup in an ongoing, ugly controversy over bullying, leadership and NFL locker-room realities, one that has some of the characteristics of a wildfire: The slightest breeze ignites it for a fresh run over highly flammable terrain.
And now the heat has reached the top floor: The firings apparently came at the behest of team owner Steve Ross, who, news reports said, conducted his own investigation into the treatment of Jonathan Martin by fellow player Richie Incognito and others – and the role their teammates, coaches and front office have played in the Dolphins’ locker room culture.
That’s significant, since owners normally leave such issues to coaches.
The Dolphins melodrama is a sad story of too much smart-ass talk and not enough supervision. The team’s leadership should have laid down specific guidelines regarding acceptable discussion of race and gender preference and about outright harassment. This was clear from the beginning. The team has suffered, and from the trainer to the owner, everyone – literally everyone – is affected. It should have never gotten this far.
Whether Ross’ firm action this week is sufficient to restore order to the Dolphins is open to question, since players have weighed in on both sides. Someone should have shut the guys’ mouths on day one. Normally, that would come from within the team and coaches.
I have a long view on this culture. Last fall marked the first season in 58 years that I was not employed full-time in a football job. Fourteen of those years were spent in the NFL – 10 as a player (including with Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers) – and I wake up each morning with painful reminders. They seem a small price to pay for having competed in the greatest team sport ever devised.
With all the sometimes absurd chatter over the Dolphins’ story, it must be difficult for thinking people to know or understand how the team’s situation could have developed.
Maybe I can add perspective – to explain, if not to completely excuse.
Football is the only sport in which every player needs every teammate on every play just to survive. Simply put, everybody matters.
Football locker rooms are loaded with alpha males, and daily conflicts are inevitable.
My sensitive, scholarly friend, writer George Plimpton, joined us with the Baltimore Colts when we were Super Bowl champions and actually played four plays against Detroit in Ann Arbor before 104,000 fans. As we left the field, he turned to me and said, “That is the most disgusting experience in my life! You guys are deranged! I have never felt such palpable hatred in my life!” I said “That was not hatred; it was intensity. We are competitors!” He was inconsolable, and our argument continued until he decided we should do a book about the subject (“One More July“).
Here are the fundamental and immutable truths that escape many media analysts and others:
• When you watch an NFL game, you are observing angry young men smashing each other with all their might on every snap of the ball. And each generation of players is bigger, faster and stronger than the one before.
• Football is not a contact sport. It is a collision sport. That is the essence – indeed, the whole point – of the game.
• College football is a petting zoo. The NFL is a jungle. When players cross the white lines in the NFL, they take on the persona of the gladiator. The intent is to destroy the opponent’s will, to dominate him, to beat him into submission. There are no nice guys on game day.
• Some players can exit the field and resume life as decent human beings: kind, reverent and socially aware. Some cannot. Their unresolved anger issues are too dominant and manifest in often dangerous ways. For these players and former players, there is no equivalent in civilian life to the catharsis of two hours a day of physical combat.
• The only people who understand a specific locker room are those who lived or live there.
When I moved to Don Shula’s team in Baltimore, for example, I was surprised to learn that there was much more laughter than in my previous locker room. The team motto was “If you can’t take a joke, bleep you!” Only we didn’t say “bleep.”
Everyone was fair game, especially superstars like John Unitas. The great John Mackey literally stripped his britches off down to jock once, in the middle of practice with several hundred spectators, because Tom Matte had planted a cicada in his pants. Everyone laughed, including Mackey. Shula smiled but quickly restored order, reminding us that we had better execute if we wanted the fun to continue.
If practice deteriorated, Shula stuck that jaw out, and our safety valve, Dan “Sully” Sullivan, would say, “Cut the crap. He’s not smiling.” I really feel that Shula’s phenomenal record was due in part to his ability to allow for some nonsense from time to time and because we had people like Sully, who became his surrogates in the huddle.
There was only one Lombardi, and there is a reason the Super Bowl trophy bears his name. There will never be another Shula.
Every organization must have its own ethos and standards that are hammered into the men’s consciousness every day as the team’s complex mix changes with waivers, injuries and trades.
Players often feel that they are fighting for their lives. There must be constant reminders of the focus. When the team wins, everybody benefits.
Individual players with differences should be expected to take care of business in private or on the field – like the men they claim to be.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bill Curry.