Bullying, assimilation and the human element

The current story involving a seemingly out of control NFL locker room points to a systemic break down of the last frontier of athletic camaraderie. Photo: Sport

SAP PAULO, November 8, 2013 — Considering the polarizing events reported over the last two weeks regarding allegations of bullying in the Miami Dolphins locker room, North America must finally take a raw, unflinching look at how its elite athletics sausage is made.

A younger player leaves the team for reasons initially unclear. Bit by bit, hearsay begins to leak to the press as to the player’s reasons for departing. Allegations begin to emerge of everything from hazing, to bullying and abuse, to outright extortion.

SEE RELATED: NFL & the Miami Dolphins: Inside a professional football locker room

Unsurprisingly, sportswriters and national pundits, most of whom have never played at the highest level, if any level at all, are on their soap boxes, decrying locker room culture as brutish and adolescent at best, pathologically abusive at worst. The subjects of this particular outrage are immaterial in the larger picture.

Sports consumers and journalists are as much to blame for these incidents as anybody else. By thrusting professional athletes onto pedestals and blanketing them with unrealistic human expectations, these athletes have been set up to fail in grand fashion. Fans and the media perpetuate their existence, both as job security and to vicariously feel, even for a fleeting moment, like an insider, and yet they mock, belittle and do not think twice about affording them the same rights to privacy we expect for ourselves. 

For hockey teams competing at the highest levels, the pressure comes from every direction. There are the team executives and boards of governors. There are corporate sponsors, shareholders, and an entire hockey operations staff charged with assembling a championship roster each season. Add to this the conditional support or fierce enmity of psychotically obsessed fans, depending on how the team is faring on the ice at any given moment. Players can turn to friends and family members for support, but none of these people have been where they are. They have never laced them up, so to speak.

There is also the very real issue of assimilation. A locker room is not a collection of cardboard cut outs or identical twins raised in laboratory test tubes. Each player comes from a particular place, and he carries with him the culture and ethics of such a place even, to varying degrees, with a chip on his shoulder regarding his hometown’s skewed self-perception. Convincing these young men to forgo their regional baggage, to let go of the simple, yet engrained traits they feel make them who they are, is a tall order, exacerbated in the WHL by the ages of the players involved, 16-20 years old.

SEE RELATED: Richie Incognito is neither a bully nor a racist

The locker room is the ultimate safe haven for elite athletes. It is wholly their domain, a cocoon of identification, where ultimately a team’s human element can serve either to propel a group to undreamed of successes, or dissolve it into disfunction and chaos. A savvy general manager can assemble a roster of talented players, but they cannot imbue this group with chemistry, or a functional hierarchy. This task rests squarely on the group in the locker room.

History has shown that teams can achieve the unthinkable when they become greater than the sum of their parts. Herb Brooks’ 1980 U.S. Olympic team did it, as did an overlooked Kootenay Ice (WHL) squad which captured the Ed Chynoweth Cup in 2011. On paper, Brooks’ U.S. team had no business being on the same sheet of ice against the older, more experienced Russian squad, but they happened into the right mix of players who fell into necessary roles. There were leaders and followers and everybody bought in. The 2011 Kootenay Ice team succeeded almost solely due to the core leadership, the three 20-year-olds who got the rest of the players to buy into a singular goal, and to believe that it was possible. 

Kootenay defeated Moose Jaw, Saskatoon and Medicine Hat during the WHL playoffs that year. According to hockey experts, the Ice were the underdogs in every series, competing against teams with higher scoring players, including many high profile NHL draft picks. With the overage players keeping the team focused internally, the rest of the players began to believe they could beat anybody, and the results on the ice proved it. Finally, the only thing standing between Kootenay and a trip to the Memorial Cup tournament was the Portland Winterhawks, on offensive juggernaut who had seemingly coasted through their playoff match ups with little effort. Portland fans confident of victory, were practically planning the Memorial Cup parade.

Kootenay, thanks to the nonchalance the veterans had imbued in their teammates, was unimpressed with Portland’s record or imposing roster of blue chip pro prospects. The Ice took away Portland’s will to play hockey, shift by shift, until they eventually hoisted the WHL’s Chynoweth cup in Portland’s own building, defeating the bewildered Winterhawks in convincing fashion.

SEE RELATED: Fighting words; NHL trying to be less violent

The current story involving a seemingly out of control NFL locker room points to a systemic break down of the last frontier of athletic camaraderie. The dressing room is the sanctum of the players and it can only be as healthy and functional as its veteran leadership. This is the x factor, which journalists and pundits who never played cannot understand.

Players will say the right things to the press, and ownership will feverishly work to apply lipstick to a pig which grows uglier by the day, but ultimately what happens in the locker room will decide whether a team fails or succeeds, and the most talent laden roster can fall on its face if the veteran leadership fails to achieve a team wide buy in.

A member of the USA hockey brass was said to have questioned Herb Brooks’ roster choices for the 1980 team, noting he had not included some of the country’s best players. The story goes that Brooks’ matter of fact reply was, “I’m not looking for the best players, just the right ones.”

Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.

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Russ Rankin

Raised in the decidedly non-traditional hockey region of Santa Cruz, California, Russ Rankin fell in love with the game as a kid while watching the "Miracle On Ice" 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. He began playing recreationally as an adult when the Sharks joined the NHL in nearby San Jose and regularly attends Sharks home games. His favorite NHL team is the New Jersey Devils, which he has been following since the 1987-88 season. In 2007, with more and more U.S. born players (particularly from California) making an impact in the WHL, Rankin pursued his passion and knowledge of the game into a job scouting California for WHL clubs. He can be seen at rinks all over the state searching for the next great crop of players.

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