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NFL focusing on respect

Miami scandal, gay player talk of the combine

– This could be as good a time as there has ever been for an openly gay player in the NFL. The league will be watching.

In the wake of the bullying scandal in Miami, executives from teams around the league who gathered for the annual scouting combine spoke Thursday about being on guard to ensure their locker rooms are respectful and tolerant – especially with Michael Sam, expected to soon become the first publicly revealed homosexual in the NFL.

Predictably, general managers and coaches said a culture of respect was already in place with their clubs before Richie Incognito became an infamous name. But while there haven’t been many major signs of response to the scandal, some tangible signs have at least emerged.

Teams have begun to include language in coaches’ contracts that forces assistants to act with more tolerance than some of the Dolphins’ staff did. The move is designed to limit a team’s liability if another Miami-like situation were to emerge with another club.

Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, drawing an overflow crowd of reporters in his first appearance since the report came out, forcefully reiterated his responsibility for all that happens to his team and promised a “better workplace.”

“I have to do a better job. I’m going to look at every way – the way we educate, the way we communicate, the way we talk to one another,” Philbin said. “I’m going to look at every avenue.”

Reaction from the 31 other teams to the bullying report was far more muted, though other coaches – Dennis Allen of the Oakland Raiders among them – acknowledged the importance of keeping a better handle on locker room dynamics.

Everyone, though, must deal with the questions about Sam, the Missouri defensive end projected to be drafted in the middle rounds.

The NFL recently reminded teams of laws against asking draft prospects about their sexuality and the guidelines for interviewing players this week in Indianapolis. A year ago, three players complained they were asked inappropriate questions they believed were intended to seek details about their sexual orientation.

Talking about harmony is easy in the offseason, of course, but maintaining an atmosphere of respect and tolerance is another story once dozens of players are thrown together. With a 53-man roster, no coach can come close to hearing every word.

“It’s hard. You try to set a good culture and a good environment in your building hope for the best,” Denver Broncos coach John Fox said.

Clearly, this issue will be scrutinized this year, with Sam entering the league, and the Dolphins trying to repair their image.

“In every locker room you go, there’s going to be conflict,” Memphis punter Tom Hornsey said. “That’s just the nature of the game. It’s very competitive. It’s got a lot of testosterone flowing through. ... But it’s not a concern. I’m pretty laid back and just take it as it is.”

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