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Bullies an issue even in NFL

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Years ago when I was covering the University of Arizona baseball team, I walked into the locker room after a practice session and all was quiet.

It was odd that all the players were gone so soon, so I looked around the locker room trying to find anyone for a quote. That’s when I came upon the mummy.

One player had been covered from head to toe in athletic tape and attached to a bench. It looked rather unpleasant.

It was Terry Francona, who was a star player for the Wildcats and eventually led them to a national championship.

At least it reportedly was Terry Francona. I turned and walked out of the locker room, not wanting to peel back any tape to make an identification or get involved in the prank. Actually, it was kind of funny.

Francona always had been one of the most pleasant guys you would ever meet, so I’m sure they all yukked it up after he was freed. How long that took, I never found out.

Think, though, if the team had taped up a guy who unknowingly was claustrophobic or had some issue with confinement. It could have grown into an ugly incident.

At the time, Jerry Kindall, an honorable man and a former Chicago Cubs second baseman, was the head coach at Arizona. Kindall was as straight-laced as they come, and you always knew that he wouldn’t stand for any kind of mistreatment of players by other teammates. This was a first-class program all the way.

I wonder, in light of the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin incident (Incognito was suspended by the Miami Dolphins for bullying fellow offensive lineman Martin), how Kindall would have been viewed if such a prank, such as the Francona situation, had blown up?

For years, whether in the NFL or at your local high school, the locker room has enjoyed “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” status. Like the rest of the world, teams are made up of a lot of good guys and a few bad guys, and coaches hope that the good guys rise to the challenge of creating a positive environment.

This usually takes place. Why? Because to be a competitive athlete over time, a person has to work hard and be dedicated. Those are not attributes you find in, for lack of a better generalized term, “bad guys.” In that respect, jerks tend to be found in far fewer numbers.

On my own high school football team, we had a kid that we called “Wit,” short for Steve Witkowski. He was an awesome, quiet kid who worked on farms and had Popeye forearms.

Now I am sure most of us have encountered bullies at times, and usually it can be part of a painful life lesson. We have to think our way out of a situation, perhaps swallow some pride, or flat out risk taking a beating when we have had enough.

In some ways, it is an important part of the educational process. Life can be difficult and for every 10 puppy dogs, there will be a couple of pit bulls.

If one of our bullies was doing his thing, Wit had this keen sense to stay out the way and let kids fend for themselves, until things went too far. Then it became obvious, if you were going to bully a weaker kid, you were going to have to deal with Wit.

After Wit kicked butt, the rest of the players would no longer fear the bully. What happened to Mike Tyson after Buster Douglas knocked him out?

It’s common knowledge that hazing or bullying has taken place in the NFL since its inception, and it’s probably happening today. Indeed, it’s a tough man’s sport where emotionally weak players usually don’t survive.

That being said, the NFL will have to take a close look at why the Incognito-Martin incident was allowed to get out of hand. And are the Dolphins and their coaches so lacking in leadership that no one stepped forward and said “enough?” To me, it says the entire team lacks character and will crumble when the going gets tough.

It’s ludicrous to think NFL football players need hazing and bullying to bond with each other. The character of these guys was established long before they entered an NFL locker room. And do you, as a fan, want to pay your hard-earned money to a guy like Incognito?

Here in Columbus, though, the thought has to involve kids and how they are being prepared for life. Certainly, we don’t want to assume so much control that we are producing a generation of pansies. Nobody wants to see the Columbus Lambs play football.

Important social skills are developed as kids deal with each other through the good and the bad. It’s important to allow kids to form their own pecking order.

But we have to figure out where a prank turns into bullying. It’s a narrow line.

Jay Heater is The Republic sports editor. He can be reached at or 379-5632.

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