Sports Law Group chair Bob Wallace weighed in on the Richie Incognito sports bullying scandal in a recent article for Professional Sports and the Law, “But it’s our locker room: What is acceptable behavior in the sports workplace?”
Sports pundits have swapped opinions endlessly about whether Incognito’s Miami Dolphins teammate Jonathan Martin buckled under the NFL’s harsh but quite-typical hazing rituals, or whether Incognito’s racially-charged jabs crossed the line. Wallace writes that no matter the sports world’s opinion, an NFL team is a business unit. Its facilities and playing fields are a workplace.
“These sports entities are not so different and unique that the rules of society and the legal obligation of providing a safe and healthy work environment do not apply to them,” he writes.
Wallace shares a story about the verbal roasting he occasionally endured while working in the front office of the Philadelphia Eagles. The late-great defensive tackle Jerome Brown gave him considerable guff. “Things that athletes say and do to each other can be profane, mean, harsh, cryptic and personal,” he writes. “The language, tone and subject matter that can routinely be heard in the locker room and among players would be unacceptable in any other workplace.”
In the wake of the Incognito incident, pro teams are taking a closer look at beefing up their human resources efforts among players and team leaders. But, as Wallace stressed in a recent webinar on compliance in the college athletic world, any HR changes must be accompanied by the “autonomy and authority to take appropriate action without spurring retaliation by coaches or players against the complaining person.”
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