NFL's public relations challenges appear to multiply

Miami Dolphins bullying scandal, charges against Darren Sharper and a police complaint against Ray Rice gain attention, not long after Commissioner Roger Goodell says NFL is looking into a code of conduct.

February 20, 2014|Sam Farmer

INDIANAPOLIS — A scant three weeks into the off-season, the NFL is dealing with three public relations infernos, two involving current players.

There's the Miami Dolphins bullying saga, chronicled in a just-released investigation that pulled back the curtain on the team's toxic locker room culture. The Dolphins have fired their offensive line coach and longtime trainer, and player suspensions could be in the works.

There's the arrest of retired Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper, most recently an NFL Network analyst, on charges that he drugged and raped two women.

And police in Atlantic City, N.J., have filed a complaint accusing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice of knocking his fiancée unconscious in an altercation over the weekend. A grainy, 50-second video of the aftermath of that alleged incident, with Rice lifting a limp Janay Palmer out of a casino elevator, has gone viral on the Internet.

The crises form a nightmarish trio for the nation's most popular sports league, one led by Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has made personal conduct the overarching focus of his tenure. The NFL already is preoccupied with an unresolved legal battle over the long-term effects of head injuries, a proposed settlement with retired players yet to be approved in federal court.

During Super Bowl week, Goodell said the league is looking into introducing a code of conduct for all 32 locker rooms.

"We're going to focus on this in the off-season," he said. "Some of it will be education, some of it possibly could be policy change. But we're beginning that dialogue and we're far into that dialogue, and I expect changes as we go forward — maybe not as much in policy as it is in making sure we provide that kind of professional workplace."

On Thursday, Dolphins Coach Joe Philbin stood at a lectern at the NFL scouting combine and told reporters the franchise is determined to change its culture in the wake of investigator Ted Wells' releasing a scathing 144-page report about the club last week.

Wells concluded that three starters on the offensive line — Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey — engaged in a pattern of harassment directed not only at tackle Jonathan Martin but also at another lineman and assistant trainer, both unnamed, that included "racial slurs and other racially derogatory language" as well as "homophobic name-calling and improper physical touching."

Speaking largely in generalizations and platitudes, Philbin assumed ultimate responsibility for what takes place on his team and vowed to fix the broken culture.

"We're going to do things about it," he said. "We're going to make it better. We're going to look at every avenue, uncover every stone, and we're going to have a better workplace. I promise you that. I'm going to make sure that happens."

The team took steps to address the situation Wednesday, firing offensive line coach Jim Turner, who the report says participated in the improper taunts, and longtime trainer Kevin O'Neill. That the Dolphins brought O'Neill to Indianapolis before abruptly firing him suggests the franchise has been in flux about how to proceed.

As for the players involved, Philbin said, "We haven't made any decisions on anybody's future in terms of the 2014 Miami Dolphins."

More disturbing are the allegations against Sharper, 38, who was charged last week with counts involving women he allegedly met at a West Hollywood nightclub. He has pleaded not guilty. Court documents say he's the focus of additional allegations in Las Vegas, New Orleans and Tempe, Ariz., that are still under investigation.

The Rice video, obtained by TMZ, stands in stark contrast to what his lawyer had described as "a very minor physical altercation." Although the Ravens star does not have a history of off-field incidents, both Rice and Palmer allegedly are seen on surveillance tape striking each other, and each was charged by police with domestic violence/simple assault and released with a summons.

As teams hunker down in Indianapolis, studying and evaluating prospects who will help chart their future on the field, the NFL faces a challenge that's even more daunting — what happens off it.

Twitter: @LATimesfarmer

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