Incognito-Martin case should embolden NFL to ban hazing

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo SportsNovember 10, 2013


On Sunday, Richie Incognito took to Fox television to explain his actions and define his relationship with former Miami Dolphins teammates Jonathan Martin. Incognito came across well – or as well as one can when trying to defend charges of being a racist bully.

He took responsibility for his actions, explained how he could type things that white people know they shouldn't and tried to shed light on a relationship that wasn't what he thought it was. It included text messages from Martin that were also out of line, according to Fox's Jay Glazer, who saw more than 1,000 messages between the two.

It wasn't a perfect defense. Plenty of people will remain unconvinced. It was one more bit of evidence, one more side heard from, in a story that remains confusing.

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Here we are, after nearly a week of reports and statements and news conferences and testimonials, and what exactly occurred inside the Miami Dolphins' locker room remains mostly a mystery, perhaps even to the people most closely involved.

Everyone can come to a conclusion that this guy is bad or this guy is good or this culture is pathetic or this school of thought is soft or this coach did/didn't order the code red. They may be correct. They may not.

It's easy to do and makes people feel safe and smart. It also is just speculation, the human desire to find black and white, victim and villain, when shades of gray are more likely.

Maybe not even Richie Incognito or Jonathan Martin know fully what the other was/is thinking or even what they, themselves were/are thinking. It's clear the relationship each believed they had, was viewed differently by the other side. Or changed without one realizing it.

"This isn't an issue about bullying," Incognito said. "This is an issue of my and John's relationship … All this stuff coming out, it speaks to the culture of our locker room, it speaks to culture of our closeness, it speaks to the culture of our brotherhood."

The Incognito-Martin story is fascinating, but it is also unique and, essentially, isolated. There likely will never be that definitive bow tied to it. That's how it is with most workplace harassment issues.

The bigger deal here is just that: this is a workplace issue first and foremost. It's clear that the NFL does a poor job of following generally agreed upon standards of decency and respect. That's one part of how the "culture" of the locker room is formed. Worse, it trickles down through the sport to levels where the headlines aren't as big but the stakes are so much greater.

Martin may have been bullied out of his job but he also had a level of power and support that few victims do. He could walk away, under no financial distress, still with a Stanford education, a loving family and plenty of fans backing him. As bad and ugly as some of the backlash has been toward him, he's been able to lay low.

That isn't how it works on a high school team – in any sport. You can quit football because someone is tormenting you – verbally, physically or through outdated "hazing." They are still going to be wandering the halls of your school or the corners of your neighborhood though.

The NFL needs to let this issue spur it to do something broader and bolder, something it should have done years ago.

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It should step back from the specifics here and just move into the modern era.

It needs to go zero tolerance on hazing, no matter how much moaning and whining the old guard makes. No more rookies paying for dinners. No more taping guys to goalposts. No more new guys carrying the pads. None of it.

The benefits to this stuff are minimal. The problems are potentially huge. The message being sent to younger athletes in all sports is terrible. Grown men in an NFL locker room, as wild and ruthless as it can be, are still grown men, with a level of maturity and mental strength that you can't expect 14-years-olds to have. Yes, most of the NFL stuff is wholesome and harmless – bring the donuts on Friday, rook – but it can spin out of control.

The news is always littered with high school hazings gone bad. Kids are always trying to play adult when they aren't yet capable of seeing the end game. This won't end that – nothing will – but it certainly can't hurt if suddenly kids can't point to the NFL and say, this is how you "build" a team.

Football exists in a bubble of arrogance, one rooted in the concept that it is somehow more noble and important than just about any other job or extracurricular activity. Too many in its ranks believe it is the only place where character can be built, teamwork forged, life lessons taught and leaders built, mainly because that is their experience. It's nonsense though. Football can do all of these things of course. It can do so many good things for young people.

So can working at Burger King, or studying hard, or learning to play chess, or volunteering at a hospital, or acting in a school play, or whatever. Sports can be great. So can a lot of things.

No matter how often football likes to compare itself to war, it isn't war. This isn't the military. This is a game and, most notably, a business. Extreme team building via primitive bonding measures is unnecessary. What new workers (rookies) are forced to do would not be tolerated at most companies. Nor should it. Here's guessing most veterans would be fine to see this go.

"All our guys, they're all members of the same team," Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly said this past week. "And I think everybody should be treated the same way … Everybody's a professional. Everybody's on the same team … We're all on the same side."

It's as good a point as has been made from someone inside the NFL, and it's one that should have been reiterated by Roger Goodell long ago. The commissioner is quick to suspend players for off-field behavior that can hurt the brand with the public. This is right along those lines.

Why stop with dog fighting and DUIs; why not start the process of showing the younger generation that the nonsense of trying to demean and isolate the younger and weaker among us brings no benefits, has no place in this sport, no place in our society?

End the base antics that can lead to a culture where everything can go so wrong, so fast that not even the participants are sure what happened or how.

If the only casualty is that some veteran has to carry his own bag or pay for his own steak dinner, well, that isn't much of a loss.