By refusing to carry the shoulder pads of teammate Roy Williams and participating in a time-honored rookie ritual in the opening days of training camp, Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant created quite a stir in NFL circles.
Although the act of defiance is minor in appearance, it has the potential to create a major issue in the Cowboys' locker room. Rookies are expected to defer to the veterans until they have earned the respect of their teammates through their play on the field, and the rites of passage are designed to keep them humble throughout the process.
When I broke into the league with the Buffalo Bills in 1994 as a second-round pick, I endured the rookie treatment from the veterans. I was asked to stand on a table in the middle of the cafeteria and belt out my school fight song while Bruce Smith, Darryl Talley and a host of other veterans booed mercilessly.
Like Bryant, I was also asked to carry shoulder pads and random items for veterans after practice, and often required to bring snacks to team and positional meetings. While I obviously didn't enjoy being their "errand boy," it was part of the deal, and I knew it, respected it. The treatment gradually starts to subside once you prove you have the game to match the swagger that typically accompanies most rookies when they enter the league.
Of course, most will view the rookie hazing as an unnecessary ritual that has no place in the grown-up world, and I can see the value in that viewpoint. No one should be subjected to harsh treatment at the workplace. However, the menial tasks demanded of rookies are neither cruel nor demeaning. They are simple customs that have been passed down for decades.
From the shuttling of pads to serving the head coach water (Bill Parcells required his team's first-round picks to serve him water at practices throughout training camp), these rookie traditions are often embraced by everyone on and around the team, and they eventually become an integral part of the training camp schedule. In fact, most teams encourage some of the rookie rituals by having their rookie class host a talent show in the middle of camp. These shows not only break up the monotony of camp and the preseason, but it promotes camaraderie among the squad as the team bonds through the laughter.
And that is why head coaches allow these customs to continue in spite of their silliness.
Bryant says he refused to carry Williams' pads because he was drafted to play football and help the Cowboys win championships, but what he doesn't understand is that chemistry is an essential part of the championship formula, and his willingness to get along with his teammates is critical to that end. You could even argue that Bryant's shunning of a rookie ritual played counter to his team's title aspirations.
Eventually, Bryant must show he can check his ego at the door or run the risk of being viewed as another prima donna in the Cowboys' locker room.