Policies Alone Don’t Change Behavior

Whether you like him or hate him, University of South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier got this one right when speaking about the Ray Rice abuse situation.He said: "If you ever hit a girl, you're not going to play on our team. You’re finished…I can't understand why every coach doesn't have that rule and why every company doesn't have that rule for their employees.”

One other thing about Spurrier: When he says something, he means it. Go to Las Vegas and bet on it because he will follow through. Doing what you say you are going to do, positively or negatively, is the foundation of trust.

As correct as his policy is, however, a policy alone, even if consistently implemented, will not solve the problem. Many behaviors need to be changed on the practice field, in the locker room and in the community. Spurrier will only know that a player has violated the policy after the fact.  What’s more, his policy may lead to additional abuse if the abuser threatens further harm if the victim tells.

I am quite certain that those involved in determining and reporting on policy (owners, general managers, coaches and media) don’t understand much about how to change behavior and confidently predict the outcomes of solutions they propose. If they did understand, they would stop preaching and create an environment in which appropriate behaviors are reinforced and unacceptable ones promptly eliminated. 

It’s obvious that knowledge of behavior is limited when solutions involve various ways of telling the players that certain behaviors won’t be tolerated. Leaders who take this approach apparently don’t know an old Chinese proverb: “Talk does not cook rice.”

A policy is but a fancy way of telling. It may be clear in what it says and in its description of the consequences. But it will only apply if you get caught, and most players think they are too smart for that to happen. Based on their history with similar incidents, they may think they can talk their way out of the consequences if they are caught — at worst, say they are sorry, pay a little money (a so-called fine) and even do some community service as repentance.

Working with delinquent boys many years ago, I found they knew exactly what to say, how to act and how to dress when facing the judge. They were clean-shaven, hair cut short, usually in a suit, head down and not looking at the judge. They responded, “Yes, sir” to every question from the judge about knowing what they did wrong and whether they knew it was wrong. It amazed me that although these juveniles had two-page rap sheets for similar offenses, they had never spent one night in detention.

Words often change the consequences of a person’s action and how the person is treated, but they are often very inefficient in changing behavior. Many young people, not just delinquents, have had the experience in which what was said and how it was said was all that was necessary to close the case. Oh, also with a promise that it would not happen again.

The NFL is now vowing to establish a policy that will ensure players who engage in abuse will be dealt with swiftly. No doubt, the NFL will agonize and take weeks or months to express it just right. Even if it is enforced consistently, which is unlikely, all it will do is to eliminate those who are caught from the gene pool. I’m reminded of our work in safety, where companies focus on lagging indicators rather than the behavior that creates an incident or accident and when they do they never get the results they want. 

The league needs to change its policy, but it more urgently needs to change a culture that promotes inappropriate behaviors. Certain ways of tackling are violent and lead to a penalty or being sent to the locker room to change into street clothes. However, another common consequence is high fives from teammates, coaches and fans. Violence will only be stopped if the unsuitable behaviors are immediately addressed in a way that stops them, followed by positive reinforcement for behaviors that build a desirable culture.

Cursing, yelling and screaming should not be tolerated. As with fighting, it harms teamwork and sets up revenge as a positive reinforcer. I recommend all managers and coaches read “Wooden on Leadership” by John Wooden, the best coach ever, as he deals with these behaviors and their fallout. Negative, verbal and physical interactions reduce mental and physical flexibility, increase injuries and reduce good performance in the game. Coaches in any sport who only know how to motivate players by yelling, screaming and grabbing them by the uniform are not fit for the job — or any occupation, in my opinion. Unfortunately, many owners, general managers and coaches don’t understand how the culture in professional sports unwittingly promotes violence and abuse.

I define culture as the way we treat each other or what we say or do that causes others to behave in a certain way. If you look at how good athletes are treated in high school and college, you can predict what their behavior will be in the pros. It is not unusual for a college athlete to get away with behavior that is not only crude and obnoxious but also in some cases illegal, and then be drafted in the early rounds by a professional team for a large salary. Organizations should not be surprised when players they draft who have histories of problems with other players, and with the law, repeat their bad behaviors when they play for the team. Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.  

The Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson cases also demonstrate that behavior on the sports field is not the only problem behavior. Bad behavior by a player in the community also generates bad publicity and is very expensive to the team.

Contrary to what some think, football does not need to be a violent sport. Violence is born when overly aggressive acts consistently provide an immediate payoff for the offender. It is all about how the organization, from executives to coaches, reacts to player behavior. New Orleans coaches found themselves in hot water for incentivizing players to tackle opponents so hard that the opponents could not continue to play. Rewarding those behaviors — not the game of hard-hitting football — is the problem. Equipment is designed so that a good tackle that stops the opponent in his tracks will not cause significant injury. However, we all have seen a player make a particularly brutal and unnecessarily hard tackle and then stand next to the player on the ground, who he hurt, beating his chest and pointing to the heavens as if to seek God’s blessing. 

I am not advocating for the wussification of sports, particularly football. But it’s not wussie behavior to apologize to a player you have hurt; it’s not wussie to help a player get up after you knock him down. As my mama says, “It is just good manners.” It is about how we should treat each other.

A coach’s job is to teach players behaviors that effectively accomplish the desired outcome. That requires positive reinforcement for the behaviors that will make someone a better player and person. If you look closely at the way football athletes are treated, treat each other and are treated by coaches, you can understand why the problem exists.

Until effective behavior-change methods are understood and practiced, the culture won’t change and the abuse will continue. You may not read about it as often but it will be working its mischief to the detriment of the players and the game and those in their crosshairs.