Incognito/Martin scandal highlights crass culture in NFL

Football has always been about strength — mental, physical, and emotional toughness are attributes that make a good football player. Skill is not enough; you have to want it more and be willing to suffer more.

This mindset, which has resulted in an increasingly violent sport, also breeds a dangerous off-the-field environment where hazing has become more prominent.

The recent Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin scandal is the first case of locker-room hazing being fully exposed to the public.

On Oct. 31, Martin, the starting left tackle, left the Miami Dolphins under the guise of battling emotional issues. A few days later, it was reported that Martin left the team due to bullying and harassment from teammates, with Incognito being named the perpetrator by Martin the next day.

The Dolphins quickly suspended Incognito, and ever since, all parties have been trying to get their side of the story out to the public. What’s surprising is that both Martin and Incognito have received their share of supporters.

Former players have criticized Martin for publicizing an in-house conflict. On the other hand, the common public has backed Martin as the victim of senseless bullying.

Hazing has always been a part of football. It is so widely accepted that some coaches use rookie hazing as a tool. Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells famously picked one rookie every year, usually the team’s first-round draft choice, to be his personal water boy.

Other famous hazing activities include a rookie talent show, where each rookie must perform a skit, sing their college fight song, or perform some other embarrassing task. There are also the traditional bad haircuts administered by team veterans. In 2012, one rookie on the Miami Dolphins was given a haircut shaped to resemble a penis.

These pranks may seem like harmless fun meant for a little bit of team bonding, but many hazing rituals have more real-life impacts than short-term embarrassment.

However, coaches such as Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and former Colts coach Tony Dungy are very strict about hazing, placing limits on the extent of meal buying and banning traditional activities like taping rookies to the goal posts overnight.

The problem is that many coaches do not like to police their locker rooms and instead leave that role to the team leaders. When those leaders are players like Incognito, though, things can get out of hand quickly.
Incognito’s behavioral problems were first reported in 2002 when he was suspended from a game for spitting on another player during his first year at the University of Nebraska. Despite his baggage, he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the third round. He played for the Rams until 2009 and earned a reputation as the league’s dirtiest player.

While his anger problems caused issues off the field, they also made him a great football player. His on-field performance resulted in a Pro Bowl invitation in the 2012 season and more. He was voted onto the Dolphin’s leadership council, and when a shy Martin was drafted out of Stanford University, Incognito was asked to toughen up the rookie.

It was during this toughening-up process that Martin cracked. Back in April, Incognito left Martin a voicemail at a coach’s behest after Martin chose not to attend voluntary team workout activities. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Incognito directed racial slurs and expletive-laced threats toward Martin and his family.

Martin finally left the team after an entire table of teammates stood up and left when he went to sit down with them at lunch. Martin allegedly smashed his tray of food on the table and walked out of building with little intention of returning.

While it would be easy to make this a black-and-white issue of bullying, the environment surrounding football, the Dolphins, and even Martin are not without blame.

Football is a sport that encourages unconstrained anger. The NFL has no mention of bullying or hazing in its agreement with the NFL Players Association.

There has never been an effort by the NFL to address this problem within its own locker rooms and within the lower ranks of football.

The Dolphins’ organization has also come under pressure for its extreme negligence. If the allegations are true that some of the coaching staff encouraged Incognito’s emotional taunting of Martin, there must be swift and harsh retribution.

Nevertheless, there was still a major institutional breakdown that should at least result in a massive house cleaning by the Dolphins, with all new coaches and possibly even players being brought in.

Martin’s role in this scandal is the most quizzical. As the story continues to develop, it appears that Martin did more than just sit silently as he was harassed by Incognito. He responded to Incognito in a similar fashion. One text from Martin to Incognito contained a meme with the text, “I will murder your whole f****** family,” over a macro of a woman laughing with a dog in her hand.

This is not a problem that will be quickly solved. Incognito and Martin were the two players that brought this issue to the forefront, but there is a large cultural and institutional problem in play. Football is a game about utilizing anger and aggression and turning them against your opponent in as physical a manner as possible. Since this aspect of the game appears to be unchangeable without losing much of the physicality that makes the NFL so popular, there must be another way to handle the aggression when the players are off the turf.

The solution will require a massive paradigm shift in how the NFL treats its players. But as with health concerns, these changes need to come from the bottom. Coaches at the youth, middle school, and even high school levels must do more to ensure that the relationship between players is one of camaraderie and mentorship instead of harassment and hazing.

As hazing is cracked down on in colleges across the nation, it is critical to set a good example of how to treat those younger than you. It’s hard to tell college and high school students that hazing and bullying is wrong when their role models do it in front of cameras with encouragement from their bosses and leaders.