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Striking out harassment in the locker room

Gregory Stenmoe doesn’t pitch or hit or catch fly balls; he doesn’t review game film, scout young prospects or sign free agents; but he provides another critical resource for professional athletes – workplace harassment training.

Stenmoe, an employment lawyer for the Minneapolis law firm Briggs and Morgan, has given a series of harassment training seminars in recent years to pro athletes, most notably the Minnesota Twins baseball team. Stenmoe has advised minor leaguers and front office members as well as the players for the Major League club. He also spoke at the Major League Baseball Human Resources Conference in 2004, and has currently drawn interest from three other professional teams to deliver his seminar.

“[The locker room is] really quite a bit different from your typical office setting,” said Stenmoe. “In an office, you’ve got co-workers, but with pro athletes, you’ve got fans, total strangers, media people, employees and players from other teams. That’s a large constituency and one that could cause a variety of problems.”

The close proximity of twenty-five ballplayers and various staff can also lead to problems.

“They’re around each other so often; it’s hard for them to tell what’s appropriate conduct and what’s not,” he said. “If two ballplayers are telling dirty jokes everyone may seem okay with it. Same if they’re interacting with a [female] member of the media and everyone is playing little tricks on her, like dropping their towels when she walks into the locker room. Or if somebody in the organization appears to be gay, and they start teasing the individual about that.”

The latter issue has gathered steam recently, with the release of former NBA player John Amaechi’s book “Man in the Middle,” in which he discusses repressing his homosexuality while playing pro basketball.

“We try to get them to use common sense about today’s society and the idea of protected classes, whether it’s race or gender or sexuality,” said Stenmoe. “A lot of it is the perception of other players on the team. If everybody’s okay with what’s going on and the conduct is welcome, it’s not harassment.”

The Briggs-Morgan firm has represented the Twins since 1987, around the time when current owner Carl Pohlad purchased the team. The franchise, Stenmoe said, wanted to develop an organization full of high-character guys, from the field to the front office. Because the club has a modest payroll (18th out of 30 teams in 2006), many players spend the bulk of their career in the organization, rather than arriving mid-career through free agency.

Raenell Dorn, the Vice President of Human Resources and Diversity for the Twins, sought out special training for athletes when she realized the harassment training available for rank-and-file employees often didn’t cover the issues encountered by professional ballplayers.

“It was something that made more sense for our business as opposed to canned software or your standard sexual harassment information,” she said. “This was something that was a little more sports-specific.

“I met with Greg the winter before his first seminar with the team and we put together a harassment training program that was more meaningful to the individuals. We wanted the players to understand they’re part of a team on the field and off and to represent the Twins in such a way.”

The Briggs-Morgan firm also advises the Twins players on financial management.

Various scenarios

Stenmoe conducts his seminars with the Twins every other year, an afternoon-long Power Point presentation that walks the players through a number of scenarios.

Some of the scenarios covered in the program include:

  • Relationships between players and other members of the organization.
  • Dealing with the media.
  • Professional conduct outside the stadium.
  • Dealing with a stalker or obsessed fan.
  • Respecting other players/coaches/staff.Stenmoe said the program is very casual and players are typically responsive during the seminar, asking questions and speaking privately with him when the presentation is wrapped up.

    Behave as if it’s on tape

    Stenmoe hasn’t litigated any workplace harassment cases for professional athletes, but says his role with players is largely based on preventing any kind of potential for legal problems.

    “In today’s environment, they have to behave as if behavior is videotaped and played on the 10 o’clock news – because it could very well happen in today’s society,” said Stenmoe. “There are all sorts of hidden cameras and cellphone cameras that could tape all sorts of things. The player has to realize he is a representative of the team.”

    Professional conduct outside the locker room has been a hot-button topic in professional sports so far in 2007; the National Football League recently suspended Tennessee Titans’ player Pacman Jones for his various brushes with the law, included assaulting a bouncer at a strip club.

    “We tell them, even if they’re just going to parties, they’ve got a target on their backs,” said Stenmoe. “They will be the targets of false accusations as well as true ones. Even if they’re with a group of buddies, the only one people remember is the big-name ballplayer.”

    If that doesn’t work, Stenmoe likes to instill a little fear. He typically shows the players articles about well-publicized scandals involving pro athletes, including a Sports Illustrated story from 2005 listing the top sex scandals in sports history.

    Questions or comments can be directed to the writer at: justin.rebello@lawyersusaonline.com