Dallas Cowboys rookie receiver Dez Bryant wasn't trying to serve as a social activist Sunday when he refused to follow an unwritten training-camp rule and acquiesce to the demands of veteran teammate Roy Williams.
Bryant had been asked – wrong word: ordered – to carry Williams’ pads off the practice field. Of course, Williams, a 6-foot-3, 212-pound wide receiver preparing for his eighth NFL season, is quite capable of carrying his own pads off the field. But the request – wrong word again: order – was symbolic, part of the hazing initiation of first-year players.
Those who defend hazing will point out that it’s a time-honored, rock-ribbed tradition meant to promote team unity. And while I’m not sure how team unity is built by compelling a rookie to perform the menial task of carrying an older teammate’s pads, the kids have pretty much complied over the years, with the expectation they’ll eventually enjoy the same privileges over future rookies.
But then Dez Bryant told Roy Williams, uh, no, find somebody else to run your errands. Bryant was clinging to this defiant notion that his silver helmet is not to be mistaken for a red cap.
“I feel like I was drafted to play football,” he said Sunday, “not carry another player’s pads.”
Bryant had only his self-interest in mind when he scoffed at protocol, but that simple rebuffing of a veteran’s demands might prove to be a milestone toward phasing out a tradition that has proven to be silly at its most innocent and dangerous at its most barbaric.
Requiring first-year players to stand up after a team meal and sing their college fight song can be a fun way to break the ice at training camp, where there’s a natural tension between rookies hungry for a roster spot and veterans scrapping for professional survival. The fun meter is taken a tick down when hazing devolves into duct-taping rookies to the goal post, or holding them still while shaving half the hair off their scalp, but, still, these are not the sort of pranks that should concern human-rights watchdogs.
And then there is the incomprehensible side of hazing, the creepy stuff that makes headlines when college and high school athletes decide humiliation and degradation are essential for initiation.
Hazing never has reached that level in the NFL, although some blindfolded 1998 New Orleans Saints rookies might disagree.
On the final day of training camp that summer, the rookies, with their heads in pillowcases, were forced to run through a gauntlet of fist-swinging teammates, some of whom packed coin-stuffed socks with their punches. When former Huskies tight end Cam Cleeland completed the initiation, he had blurred vision in his left eye. Another rookie, Andy McCullough, suffered a head injury, while a third rookie, defensive tackle Jeff Danish, ended up with facial bruises and a 13-stitch gash in his left arm. (Danish sued the team; the case was settled out of court.)
Granted, there’s no immediate correlation between a veteran’s harmless request that a rookie carry his pads and the frightening experience of running through a gauntlet of fists with a pillowcase on your head.
But a permissive hazing culture that left three Saints rookies injured has to start somewhere.
It starts with the premise that the youngest members of a team are fodder for embarrassment. As NFL veterans believe it’s their right to put rookies in their proper place, it’s no wonder high school and college athletes believe it’s OK to taunt freshmen and, in some cases, brutalize them.
Enough. Hazing in pro football was tolerated, I suspect, because it helped alleviate the boredom of training camps that used to resemble military boot camps. Before NFL employment became a year-round commitment, interior linemen who spent the offseason as bartenders showed up 20 or 30 pounds overweight. Those grueling two-a-day workouts were necessary – the farther away from civilization, the thinking went, the better.
That thinking no longer applies. When the Seahawks convene for training camp Saturday in Renton, for instance, those who arrive out of shape will be conspicuous. Boredom won’t be an issue. Practices are scripted to be crisp, and when the final meeting-room session of the long day concludes, players will be free to pursue the normal lives of responsible adults.
Hazing might’ve been a necessary evil in 1960, some hijinks to counter the typically oppressive environment of an NFL training camp. Fifty years later, hazing is among those inexplicable goofy traditions – along with Groundhog Day, honorary degrees, calling a basketball timeout with 1.8 seconds on the clock and the score 81-67, street-side campaign signs, Memorial Day mattress sales and jinxing a no-hitter by mentioning a no-hitter – that poses a question: What, exactly, is the point?
“There’s a certain protocol for the young guys to have an opportunity to show some humility and some respect for the veterans and what they’ve done in this league,” Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, referring to the Bryant-Williams incident, told USA Today on Tuesday. “If that means stepping back at dinner, stepping back in the taping line, taking care of pads coming off the field ... we encourage that, and our guys have always been good about that.”
Harbaugh should be commended for encouraging the young guys to show some humility and some respect for the veterans.
I’m just wondering: How does demanding that a teammate carry your pads promote either humility or respect?