Skip to main content

What Dolphins could learn from Don Shula

By Bill Curry
February 21, 2014 -- Updated 1513 GMT (2313 HKT)
The Miami Dolphins have suspended Pro Bowl offensive lineman Richie Incognito following <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/04/us/nfl-dolphins-richie-incognito-suspended/index.html'>allegations of misconduct</a> from teammate Jonathan Martin. Incognito played for the University of Nebraska before he was drafted in 2005 by the St. Louis Rams. He also played for the Buffalo Bills in 2009 before joining the Dolphins in 2010. The Miami Dolphins have suspended Pro Bowl offensive lineman Richie Incognito following allegations of misconduct from teammate Jonathan Martin. Incognito played for the University of Nebraska before he was drafted in 2005 by the St. Louis Rams. He also played for the Buffalo Bills in 2009 before joining the Dolphins in 2010.
HIDE CAPTION
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bill Curry: Vince Lombardi wouldn't tolerate racism in locker room; culture set at the top
  • Dolphins fired coach and trainer after bullying report; he says it shouldn't have come to this
  • He says football is violent, intense, needs leaders to set firm standards for alpha males
  • Curry: Famed Dolphins coach Don Shula let players have fun with limits; winning was focus

Editor's note: Bill Curry was a center in the NFL for 10 seasons: with the Green Bay Packers (1965-66), Baltimore Colts (1967-72), Houston Oilers (1973) and Los Angeles Rams (1974). He participated in three Super Bowls and two Pro Bowls. He was head coach at Georgia State University, Georgia Tech, the University of Alabama and the University of Kentucky. He has worked as a football analyst for ESPN.

(CNN) -- A great football team combines inherent violence with a certain order, always imposed by the coaches and team leaders. Famed Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi allowed very little humor and made it abundantly clear that there would be no racism in his organization. Regardless of intent, any racist remark by a player was deemed malicious and resulted in instant dismissal from the team. The culture was established at the top. Leaders like Willie Davis were the enforcers in the locker room, along with Lombardi's "War Council," a group of hand-picked players who communicated directly with him.

The Miami Dolphins would have done well to take a page from Lombardi.

On Wednesday, the Dolphins fired offensive line coach Jim Turner and head athletic trainer Kevin O'Neill. It was the latest flareup in an ongoing, ugly controversy over bullying, leadership and NFL locker-room realities, one that has some of the characteristics of a wildfire: The slightest breeze ignites it for a fresh run over highly flammable terrain.

Bill Curry
Bill Curry

And now the heat has reached the top floor: The firings apparently came at the behest of team owner Steve Ross, who, news reports said, conducted his own investigation into the treatment of Jonathan Martin by fellow player Richie Incognito and others -- and the role their teammates, coaches and front office have played in the Dolphins' locker room culture.

That's significant, since owners normally leave such issues to coaches.

The Dolphins melodrama is a sad story of too much smart-ass talk and not enough supervision. The team's leadership should have laid down specific guidelines regarding acceptable discussion of race and gender preference and about outright harassment. This was clear from the beginning. The team has suffered, and from the trainer to the owner, everyone -- literally everyone -- is affected. It should have never gotten this far.

Whether Ross' firm action this week is sufficient to restore order to the Dolphins is open to question, since players have weighed in on both sides. Someone should have shut the guys' mouths on day one. Normally, that would come from within the team and coaches.

I have a long view on this culture. Last fall marked the first season in 58 years that I was not employed full-time in a football job. Fourteen of those years were spent in the NFL -- 10 as a player (including with Lombardi's Green Bay Packers) -- and I wake up each morning with painful reminders. They seem a small price to pay for having competed in the greatest team sport ever devised.

With all the sometimes absurd chatter over the Dolphins' story, it must be difficult for thinking people to know or understand how the team's situation could have developed.

Maybe I can add perspective -- to explain, if not to completely excuse.

What goes on inside NFL locker rooms?
Agent: Bullied player trying to move on
Agent: 2014 will be good year for Martin

Football is the only sport in which every player needs every teammate on every play just to survive. Simply put, everybody matters.

Football locker rooms are loaded with alpha males, and daily conflicts are inevitable.

My sensitive, scholarly friend, writer George Plimpton, joined us with the Baltimore Colts when we were Super Bowl champions and actually played four plays against Detroit in Ann Arbor before 104,000 fans. As we left the field, he turned to me and said, "That is the most disgusting experience in my life! You guys are deranged! I have never felt such palpable hatred in my life!" I said "That was not hatred; it was intensity. We are competitors!" He was inconsolable, and our argument continued until he decided we should do a book about the subject ("One More July").

Here are the fundamental and immutable truths that escape many media analysts and others:

• When you watch an NFL game, you are observing angry young men smashing each other with all their might on every snap of the ball. And each generation of players is bigger, faster and stronger than the one before.

• Football is not a contact sport. It is a collision sport. That is the essence -- indeed, the whole point -- of the game.

• College football is a petting zoo. The NFL is a jungle. When players cross the white lines in the NFL, they take on the persona of the gladiator. The intent is to destroy the opponent's will, to dominate him, to beat him into submission. There are no nice guys on game day.

• Some players can exit the field and resume life as decent human beings: kind, reverent and socially aware. Some cannot. Their unresolved anger issues are too dominant and manifest in often dangerous ways. For these players and former players, there is no equivalent in civilian life to the catharsis of two hours a day of physical combat.

• The only people who understand a specific locker room are those who lived or live there.

When I moved to Don Shula's team in Baltimore, for example, I was surprised to learn that there was much more laughter than in my previous locker room. The team motto was "If you can't take a joke, bleep you!" Only we didn't say "bleep."

Everyone was fair game, especially superstars like John Unitas. The great John Mackey literally stripped his britches off down to jock once, in the middle of practice with several hundred spectators, because Tom Matte had planted a cicada in his pants. Everyone laughed, including Mackey. Shula smiled but quickly restored order, reminding us that we had better execute if we wanted the fun to continue.

If practice deteriorated, Shula stuck that jaw out, and our safety valve, Dan "Sully" Sullivan, would say, "Cut the crap. He's not smiling." I really feel that Shula's phenomenal record was due in part to his ability to allow for some nonsense from time to time and because we had people like Sully, who became his surrogates in the huddle.

There was only one Lombardi, and there is a reason the Super Bowl trophy bears his name. There will never be another Shula.

Every organization must have its own ethos and standards that are hammered into the men's consciousness every day as the team's complex mix changes with waivers, injuries and trades.

Players often feel that they are fighting for their lives. There must be constant reminders of the focus. When the team wins, everybody benefits.

Individual players with differences should be expected to take care of business in private or on the field -- like the men they claim to be.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bill Curry.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1425 GMT (2225 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1900 GMT (0300 HKT)
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2040 GMT (0440 HKT)
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1401 GMT (2201 HKT)
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1232 GMT (2032 HKT)
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 1805 GMT (0205 HKT)
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT