The other day, as he stood before his 4-foot-wide mahogany-colored stall in a country club-like locker room of the Carolina Panthers, tackle Jordan Gross was asked about the dirty world of lineman hazing. Surely now that the door has been opened on the world of Richie Incognito and profane texts and the free use of the worst racial slurs, Gross could offer context to a story that was shocking the nation.
Gross stared, confused, at the question.
"Honestly, since I've gotten in the league it's gotten a lot cleaner," he finally said.
The rest of the NFL does not resemble the Miami Dolphins locker room. A barbaric game on the field is often more corporate away from it. Many teams practice in gleaming new buildings with glass atriums and weight rooms that are nicer than $150-a-month gymnasiums. They meet in classrooms and pad respectfully down carpeted hallways. Practices are regimented. The bravado and trash talking you see on Sundays rarely arises on fields where horns constantly blare signaling the next segment of instruction.
Locker rooms can be loud. Depending on the time of day players might shout and joke, but the moment is usually fleeting. The players have too many demands on their time between meetings, film sessions and trips to the trainers, to engage in much raunchy horseplay. An NFL practice facility today is more like an insurance office than a fight club.
Sure, players yell. They tease. They swear. They even engage in annoying hazing rituals like making rookies carry their shoulder pads or buy an occasional meal – a purchase that is usually later refunded. But NFL teams are good at policing themselves. Nearly every locker room has a handful of players who understand limits and permit a measure of joking in the name of unity yet know exactly when to cut it off.
It is called leadership. And the fact Richie Incognito was considered one of the Dolphins leaders says everything about the lack of guidance in their room.
Ask players and coaches and executives around the NFL about what is going on in Miami and the answer comes back the same: The Dolphins lack the players who can stand up to Incognito and tell him when his bullying is enough.
A telling window into the leadership void of Miami's locker room came last week when several key Dolphins players said they always thought Incognito and his foil – Jonathan Martin – were the best of friends. They pleaded ignorance to Incognito's alleged menacing of the man who stands beside him on the offensive line, either because they believed Incognito's belittling of Martin was appropriate or because they themselves feared the swaggering presence of Incognito.
Both reasons are cowardly and negligent. Both demonstrate a team unable to discipline itself and a coaching staff that can't control its players. Perhaps Martin was a bad fit in Miami. He is considered a finesse tackle whose best characteristics might be his intelligence and an ability to quickly learn offensive plays. Maybe he stuck out as an outsider in a locker room more bawdy than his previous one at Stanford. Despite the sterile atmosphere, locker rooms can still carry an air of raunchiness.
And yet it's hard to imagine something like this happening in the locker room of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick or John Fox and Peyton Manning or John Harbaugh and Ray Lewis. Even teams like Washington or Indianapolis or Seattle – places with second-year quarterbacks that have spirited but hardly hostile locker rooms. All have players who create a culture of acceptance, who convince their teammates that the greater goal of winning is far bigger than the mental toll of mocking the guy who isn't quite like everyone else.
A source close to Martin lamented the lack of the Dolphins leadership the other day. The person said Martin still wants to play football and would be open to returning to the team, though the comments from Miami players supporting Incognito and blaming Martin for leaving the team have made that return far less likely, the source said. Like others in the league, the source wondered what had happened to the leaders on the team, in the front office. Who was making sure Richie Incognitio wasn't running amuck?
The fallout from this story has probably made it impossible for Martin and Incognito to ever again play together in the NFL and, as it has likely cost the Dolphins 40 percent of their offensive line, it seems everyone has come out a loser. What then was the price of looking away? What was the cost of abdicating a responsibility assumed in most other NFL locker rooms?
Yes, football is a rough game. Yes, the men who play it can be boorish, immature and unenlightened. But at the heart of every locker room are a handful of players who keep things from getting out of hand. This is a business, after all. Either the Miami Dolphins lack the leaders to control Richie Incognito or they decided he was the leader of them all.
It's hard to know which is worse.