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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Derrick Z. Jackson

The danger of cheering the immature

Richie Incognito, accused of bullying a Miami Dolphins teammate, was 23 years old in 2006, his first year in the NFL.

ASSOCIATED PRESS/file 2006

Richie Incognito, accused of bullying a Miami Dolphins teammate, was 23 years old in 2006, his first year in the NFL.

In response to its bullying scandal, the Miami Dolphins have fired the assistant coach and head trainer who participated in and laughed at the bullying. But that is far from sufficient. The main offending players should be banned for a year from the National Football League, as well as head coach Joe Philbin and his staff for being so oblivious to the bullying as to be offensive. In cases like this, cleaning the house is the only way to clear the air.

Moreover, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell should issue new fines for unacceptable workplace language. No more ethnic, homophobic, or personal taunts or pranks.

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But what needs to be confronted is why the bullying happened in the first place. The Dolphins are merely the most extreme example of a rampant problem. American locker rooms represent the most immature workplace environment imaginable. So the question really is, how much longer will we coddle the system that coddles the athletes?

Last week’s 144-page report on the Dolphins ordered by Goodell contained much beyond the pale, but zero beyond the imagination. Having been a sportswriter, I know locker rooms have always sizzled with levels of ethnic banter, rookie hazing, homophobic innuendo, and sex-conquest braggadocio that would be firing offenses at workplaces such as General Electric, Microsoft, or The Boston Globe.

And I literally mean “sizzled.” In 1980 I was in the Pittsburgh Pirates clubhouse in between a doubleheader. They were the defending World Series champs, and one of the most tightly knit interracial teams in sports, led by Hall of Famer Willie Stargell. Out of the trainer’s room popped one of the white pitchers, dressed in a white sheet, with “KKK” scrawled across his forehead. He grabbed a broom, set it afire, and chased a naked black teammate across the room.

Everyone laughed. But it was immature.

That same year, I was interviewing Steve Mix, a veteran forward for the Philadelphia 76ers. He was 32, and we got to talking about the age at which pro athletes begin to mature, because they’ve been allowed to be immature for so long. He thought the age was around 26 or 27 when they finally begin to display some grasp of adult responsibilities.

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“Unfortunately, you can grow up in the world of basketball without assuming adult responsibility,” he told me. “Then all of a sudden, they’re in an adult world playing a children’s game.”

On Wednesday, I called up Mix to see what he thought today. Speaking from Angola, Ind., where he is the women’s basketball coach at Trine University, he chuckled that the age players begin to mature may be more like 28, if they last that long in the sport. The average NBA career is about five years, and the average NFL career is about three.

“Kids today are being told how great they are in seventh and eighth grade,” Mix said. “High school recruits are getting bombarded with texts and letters from coaches saying how great they are. Kids need a stronger foundation to resist all that.”

The lack of a current foundation is painfully obvious. The Dolphins aside, the lack of maturity of the average professional athlete is reflected in a disturbing number of criminal arrests and the fact that, according to Sports Illustrated, the majority of NFL and NBA players are bankrupt or in serious financial trouble only a few years after retirement.

To me, this all goes back to us as sports fans. We demand that our athletes be role models as adults. But from the time they are young, we tell them their dunking ability, not their brains, is their ticket to college. We are shocked when athletes abuse women but raise no eyebrow as college recruiters use so-called “hostesses” to impress high school seniors. President Obama admonishes black men at commencements to be responsible. But in 2011, Obama jovially invited to the White House national basketball champion Connecticut, where black player graduation rates have ranged between zero and 25 percent the last eight years.

So we can condemn the Dolphins, and we should. But other locker rooms are out there waiting to blow up. The time bomb will always be ticking, as long as we cheer children in men’s bodies.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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