Richie Incognito was bullied once.
Back in third grade, he was insulted for his weight. Schoolmates called him "lardass" and "whale," according to a story written a few years ago.
Incognito decided to fight back, and punched his tormenter in the face.
Far from being proud of it, Incognito said, "We were both scared."
It's time to stop assuming that a person of mammoth strength has immunity from psychological assault. Just because someone can withstand incredible physical duress doesn't mean he's more capable of dealing with emotional pain. This applies to Incognito, and it certainly applies to Jonathan Martin, the Dolphins teammate who allegedly received a vile racial voicemail from the same guy who says he was once bullied for being fat.
We don't know the full story of what went on between Incognito and Martin. We do know that both men seem troubled. And we know the support system for NFL players needs work. Players deserve it, and based on everything from Javon Belcher's suicide to Hamza Abdullah's Twitter rant, players need it.
But this is football!
That's the refrain being heard about Incognito's alleged abuse and Martin's decision to leave the team facility. These athletes are paid a lot of money to go out there and beat each other up, the argument goes, so they better know how to "man up" in the locker room and deal with some razzing. Yes, Incognito is a bad guy, according to this line of thinking, but this is a gladiator sport and a thick skin is required.
But thick skin has nothing to do with size or strength. A strong person can be just as vulnerable to verbal torture as a waif. Perhaps more so. And the person who is doing the tormenting doesn't get to decide what crosses the line. Nor does the coach or the general manager. If Martin was offended or hurt by what Incognito did, then Incognito crossed the line – just like the third-grader crossed the line by calling Incognito a "whale."
This is what's most maddening about some of the reaction to the Dolphins' situation. People outside the locker room are deciding the standard of bullying. That standard is raised because these are football players, and that should not be the case. Anyone can be bullied, because anyone can have soft spots that nobody else can see. The argument that "most people wouldn't be offended" is callous and ignorant, and it only makes bullying worse when you are the one hurt. It also makes football players less likely to reach for help in a time of need. They are supposed to be tough, right?
Yes, another football player might have shrugged off teasing and vile comments. Another might have laughed or given it right back. Another football player might have just decked the offender. That doesn't mean, in the Dolphins' case, that Martin's decision to leave the team was weak. It might have actually been strong. It might have been the moment when Martin got sick of it all and decided to "man up." This could have been the instant when Martin's self-respect trumped his fear of a veteran or a boss. In that sense, Martin might have "manned up" just like Incognito did when he was younger. In fact, it's possible Martin's reaction was far more manly than it would have been had he clocked Incognito.
Perhaps this could have all been avoided if NFL teams (and the league) did more to support consultation with on-site therapists. Incognito was on the Indianapolis Colts' do-not-draft list because of his character, and a recent profile of him showed how many demons he's had throughout his life. So what was done for him?
"None of it shocks me," Giants kicker Josh Brown, a former teammate of Incognito's in the NFL and college, told Newsday on Monday. "This seems to be a person with a tortured soul. He has had his issues for quite a while I could say."
Remember "Hard Knocks" last year? Chad Ochocinco walked into a Dolphins meeting room and basically told Joe Philbin and the other coaches that he was having issues at home. He was met with mostly silence. Ochocinco left. He was arrested later that summer for domestic violence, and he hasn't played a down in the NFL since. Same franchise, same inability to deal with emotional issues in players. Don't think it's just the Dolphins with this kind of problem. It's not.