A second-round draft pick out of the University of Michigan, Dan Dierdorf vividly recalls being hazed by his veteran St. Louis Cardinals teammates during his first NFL training camp in 1971. They taped him to a goal post, they made him sing the Michigan fight song in front of the entire team and they asked him to do several other embarrassing acts that he remembers with smiles today, 41 years later.
“It’s just part of the game,” Dierdorf, now an analyst for CBS Sports, told me Tuesday afternoon. “It’s been going on forever. And, come on, 99 percent of the time, it’s completely harmless. We always figured, ‘No harm, no foul.’ And with what happened to the New York Giants over the weekend — I wouldn’t take that too seriously.”
Dierdorf’s comments come with 41 years associated with the NFL in some capacity as player, Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee and broadcaster. They also come in light of New York Giants punter Steve Weatherford posting a video of Giants second-year player Prince Amukamara being dumped into a cold tub of ice water by third-year veteran Jason Pierre-Paul. Amukamara, technically still considered a “rookie” by the Giants veterans, emerges from the ice tub, visibly shaken and deflated, in the video.
In the wake of the clip idiotically being posted on to YouTube by the Giants punter on Sunday night, one sports columnist after another has used the footage as an example in an attempt to make grander statements about the evils of bullying.
And that’s not fair.
The tub incident was stupid, it was sophomoric and it was unnecessary — but it was not "bullying." Confusing this incident with real bullying — the kind that isn’t done with good humor or good intentions, the kind that leads to real psychological issues, the kind that keeps children from living the lives they’re meant to live — is an act even more erroneous than the ice tub dumping itself.
Like it or not, incidents like the one Amukamara endured are commonplace in NFL locker rooms. They happen every August. And they happen on 32 different teams.
“Look, there are certain unwritten rules that have been in place in the National Football League in its 90-year history,” said Shannon Sharpe, another Pro Football Hall of Famer. “I don’t know all the circumstances with this incident, but let me explain — when you come into the league as a rookie, certain things are expected of you and certain things are going to happen. You’re going to sing your school’s fight song. You’re going to deliver the veterans breakfast sandwiches. You’re going to pay for very expensive dinners.
"In training camp, you might get your hair cut, you might get taped to the goalposts and you might get dumped in the cold tub. You don’t fight it. It’s part of tradition. And guess what? A year later, if you make the team, the shoe will be on the other foot. You’re going to be the guy getting the breakfast sandwich delivered to you in the morning. You’re going to be the guy dumping the kid in the tub.”
Just because it has been done for years, obviously, doesn’t make it right. But in NFL circles, whether you care to agree with it or not, players believe there is actually some value in traditions such as these.
“Listen, I grew up in a tough neighborhood in Southern California, so I know what real bullying looks like,” former Cincinnati Bengals defensive back Solomon Wilcots said. “I also pledged a fraternity and was a rookie in the NFL in the late 1980s. So I understand the difference between pledging, hazing and bullying. In the NFL, it’s a rite of passage.
"And remember — they don’t do these types of things to guys who don’t have a shot at making the team. Those guys are usually left alone. But it’s done to the first- and second-round picks. It’s a way of integrating these guys into the rest of the team. It creates moments of humility for a lot of guys who, quite frankly, might need it. It’s a medicine.”
Roll your eyes all you want at this machismo and tough-guy talk, but it’s real. A football locker room isn’t your company’s boardroom, and it’s not your kid’s lunchroom cafeteria. It’s a world in which adults are paid handsomely to do a job and a world in which there are traditions wholly unique to the world itself. Early round draft selections are paid better — in many cases — than the veterans in the locker room who have logged multiple years in the league. The treatment they receive during their first training camp serves as a way to set the order of command straight, paychecks be damned.
“This isn’t bullying," Sharpe said. "Listen, an NFL locker room isn’t a playground at school, and it’s not a corporation like CBS or wherever else someone might work. It’s a very unique environment. None of this would be acceptable in any of those other situations. And I get it, everybody’s trying to put a face to their cause, but this is not and should not be the face of the bullying cause. This type of stuff has been going on for years.
"I had to sing, I had my keys stolen and all of that was to be expected. And guess what? I did it the next year to the younger guys, and 13 more years after that.”
Giants defensive captain Justin Tuck served as the defense’s spokesperson Monday at the team’s facilities.
"No one really understands the culture in this locker room and locker rooms around the country unless you’ve been in one," Tuck said. "I definitely can see how people outside of this locker room can take it in a negative light and for good reason. I definitely see both sides of it. . . . We’re going to do our part to make sure that nothing like this happens again."
In Wilcots’ case, he was actually pleased and excited to be treated in such a way. An eighth-round pick out of Colorado, he viewed his rookie hazings as a sign that he was being accepted by his veteran teammates.
He recalled his most vivid incident with hearty laughs in between his words: “I don’t even know who did it! I was rooming with Eric Thomas in 1987, and a bunch of veterans were on the other side of the door in our dorm room and they sprayed all the fire extinguishers right under our door. They fumigated the room! We had no idea what was going on. There was all this stuff all over the room. But it was all good, because guess what? Boomer Esiason was on our team, Cris Collinsworth was on our team, Anthony Munoz was on our team. And they all went through that kind of stuff when they were rookies, too. It was a rite of passage.”
Wilcots then noted: “And you know, when they said, ‘Solomon Wilcots, stand up and sing your college fight song,’ I smiled. Because, hey, that means they knew my name.”
The six-year NFL veteran does think there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed in rookie hazing rituals. The intentions have to be good.
“The way to go about it is to make sure there’s a dose of humility involved," he said. "It ought to correct the psyche, not injure or harm an individual. It’s really about sending a message. That message is, ‘Hey, this is where you are, and this is where the veterans are. Leadership is vested with the veterans, and not the rookies.’”
Hazing shouldn’t be permitted on high school or Pop Warner football teams. The crimes that have been committed in the past in several incidents are hateful and heinous. In most cases, that’s bullying. But in the pros, where these are adults being paid quite well to do a job, I can’t help but view things in a different light.
Though Pierre-Paul and the Giants veteran defensive players — several of whom are seen and heard laughing and shouting expletives in the video — are catching some heat in the media for the cold tub incident this week, it’s ultimately going to be Weatherford who pays the price.
A skilled punter who received a five-year contract extension over the offseason, Weatherford’s generally a very well-liked player both in the locker room and in media circles. He’s affable, he’s quirky and he has an active presence on various social media sites.
But he screwed up on this one. Big time. You know the saying, “What happens in fight club, stays in fight club?” Well, there’s long been an understanding around the league that what happens in an NFL locker room, stays in an NFL locker room. And with the click of a “send” button, Weatherford betrayed that understanding.
“How do you say you are a family, if you’re sharing family business with the outside?” asked Sharpe, a player who was never shy of sharing things with the media as a player. “You can’t say on the one hand, ‘We are a family, and there’s nothing wrong here,’ and then go ahead and air family business with a million people on YouTube. In your own home, you didn’t share what your parents and grandparents spoke about at the dinner table on the schoolyard the next day, right? Well it’s no different.”
Added Dierdorf: “Weatherford’s the idiot, here. You don’t post that online! We had a sign in our locker room that simply said: ‘What you say here, what you see here, when you leave here, let it stay here.’ Inside that locker room, it’s a private sanctum, and it shouldn’t be violated. With one click of a button, Weatherford really compromised his teammates and made himself look silly.”
The 14-year veteran then took a sip of water and added: "You know, I keep checking the waiver wire and expecting to see his name. He’s testing his value with the Giants right now. I know he got Tom Coughlin’s blood boiling, and that’s not a good thing.”
Wilcots agreed with his CBS Sports colleague, noting: “No doubt about it, within that locker room, he will be viewed as a future whistleblower. Punters and kickers are a different breed, though. The things that they participate in is less about a team mentality than the other guys. And I think if Weatherford had a chance to do it all over again, he absolutely wouldn’t.”
First the Giants had issues with their mattresses in Albany. Now, it’s an ice tub. They might be worthy of a new nickname — Team Bed, Bath & Beyond — but let’s not call them bullies.
That’s not doing the fight against real bullying any favors.