Last week in Atlanta, something fairly significant happened—something that could begin to change so many things in the NFL.
Two former players—Donovin Darius, a former safety for the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Patrick Kerney, a former defensive end who played most of his career in Atlanta—met with the entire Falcons football team. The team's players and coaches, buttressed by Darius and Kerney, spoke about a phrase that you will hear often in the coming months: culture of respect.
There were three main topics discussed—all topics that are, and will be, huge issues in football going forward. The first was about the NFL having its first openly gay player, the second was about hazing and the third had to do with there being no place in the locker room for the use of the N-word.
"We have an opportunity to be more deliberate in creating a culture of respect," said the NFL's chief human resources executive, Robert Gulliver, who was present at the meeting.
The union has programs where a six-person, full-time staff works with players on any number of issues. Yet this type of town-hall format, with ex-players speaking to practically an entire organization, is something the NFL hasn't really done before.
How Falcons players reacted isn't clear, but there was a similar meeting this week in Arizona, and a veteran player on that team said the message was "very good and very needed. The team responded well to it."
Hall of Famer Aeneas Williams, who mainly played for the Cardinals, specifically asked players not to use the N-word and also asked them not to play music featuring it. Williams' message was: If a word offends anyone, it shouldn't be used.
These conferences emerged as a result of a meeting in New York several months ago, which involved members of the union's executive committee, three NFL head coaches, commissioner Roger Goodell and lawyers for the league.
While Goodell and Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, met with some 50 players in a series of meetings after the Super Bowl to talk about these issues, it was the conference with the coaches and union that was key.
The NFL originally wanted to have a human resources representative specifically responsible for locker room (workplace) etiquette. If a player had any problem, they'd go directly to that HR person.
Members of the executive committee objected because such a system would create a lengthy written trail that could be leaked to the media. The compromise was the current series of meetings happening now.
While what the NFL is doing certainly has a public relations function to it, the league should also be commended for having a direct, frontal conversation with every player and coach in football about three of the thorniest topics surrounding the league.
Darius, Kerney and Williams are part of the NFL's ambassador program. There are about a dozen total ambassadors right now, and they are trained in New York, Gulliver says, in the areas of culture and respect. The ambassadors will meet with every team by the end of training camp.
"We don't mean for this to be a lecture," said Gulliver. "It's meant to start a broader conversation. Clubs are embracing it as part of a way to be a high-performing organization."
These types of meetings became almost a necessity in light of two significant news events: Michael Sam becoming the first openly gay NFL player and the hazing catastrophe in Miami last season. Under existing unsportsmanlike conduct rules, this season the league will emphasize penalizing players for using the N-word or for using homophobic slurs on the field.
Competition committee member Jeff Fisher told reporters in March, via Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com:
We have the current rule—unsportsmanlike conduct—Rule 12, Section 3. It states that, 'Using abusive, threatening or insulting language, or gestures to opponents, teammates, officials or representatives of the league is unsportsmanlike conduct.' The N-word would fall under that category. The officials will be empowered to call a foul if there are racial slurs or statements regarding another player’s sexual orientation, or even bating and insulting with verbal abuse. It falls under that. It is going to be a very significant point of emphasis.
The NFL is using the ambassador program as a way to try and head off any potentially embarrassing situations.
It's just smart for the league to do this.
The program isn't perfect, though. Despite coaches being a part of the meeting, one player said a problem with the program is it emphasizes player-to-player conduct and not coach-to-player conduct.
So, to some players, it seems as though the message from the NFL is focused solely upon the players when it should also be centered on the coaches. The NFL believes that by coaches being present in the meetings, it is implicit that they are expected to adhere to these guidelines as well.
"The message so far has been very well received," said Gulliver. "It's a start."
And a good one at that.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.