Us against the world.
That's one of the most overused motivational phrases in sports, a way of riling up a team for battle against not only an opponent, but an array of unseen doubters and skeptics. There probably isn't an athlete in America who hasn't used or at least been fired up by that phrase.
Expect it to be used Monday by the Miami Dolphins.
Actually, expect it to be abused.
The mentality is already firmly in place. The Dolphins' players spoke out Thursday, only a few days after teammate Jonathan Martin left the team as a way of escaping alleged bullying by Richie Incognito and others. Rather than extending sympathy to Martin, the players supported Incognito despite a leaked voicemail threatening Martin and labeling him with a racial slur. The real perpetrator was not Incognito, but Martin, who ditched "us" for "the world." It was an act of treason, and now we can anticipate Martin's departure and the ensuing media onslaught as a means of galvanizing the team for its Monday night game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Dolphins wideout Brian Hartline even accused the media of bullying the team, which only feeds into the mindset. The problems are on the outside.
This is the heart of a serious flaw in football culture. Teams have their own rules, their own standards, their own policing. Disturbances are to be "handled" internally, or "in-house" rather than with an eye toward societal norms. Us against the world.
Thursday brought a stark example. A report out of South Florida detailed allegations made by a golf tournament volunteer last year that Incognito made wildly inappropriate gestures and comments including rubbing himself against her. According to a police report, the woman came forward because the team did nothing to make it right.
Perhaps the Dolphins "handled" that matter "internally." That would mirror the advice Martin reportedly got from general manager Jeff Ireland when he informed him of Incognito's ways. Ireland, rather than getting involved himself as most workplace supervisors should, suggested that Martin respond with his fists.
[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Sad state of pro football in state of Florida]
We always hear that the "rules" are different in football, when it really shouldn't be that way at all. Respect should be commonplace in any working environment, and respect for Martin seemed to be as lacking as respect for the volunteer who was allegedly harassed.
It's not fair to cast this foul blanket onto the entire league, as there's plenty of maturity and leadership to cover up for the sport's miscreants (Tony Gonzalez, Calvin Johnson and Tom Brady to name a few), but outsiders, who commissioner Roger Goodell regard as future fans, must be hearing about the Dolphins' situation and wondering what the hell is wrong with football players. How is a man who reportedly held meetings in strip clubs, a man who embarrassed himself and his team at a golf outing, a man who joked about relieving himself in a teammate's mouth, elected to a leadership council? Incognito wouldn't even be elected to an eighth-grade student council. And somehow he's regarded by his colleagues highly, with something between acceptance and appreciation.
This disconnect with reality is made worse by a report in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday which details how a hazing practice nearly cost former New Orleans Saints player Cam Cleeland his vision when a teammate hit him in the face with a roll of coins. When he complained to then-coach Mike Ditka, he heard the same refrain we're hearing about Martin – he should have "popped those guys in the mouth."
Those who say Martin's situation was different because he wasn't physically assaulted and had an issue with only one teammate are missing the point and perhaps the truth. David Cornwell, Martin's lawyer, released a statement Thursday saying the hazing went past the usual locker room shenanigans.
"Beyond the well-publicized voicemail with its racial epithet," Cornwell wrote, "Jonathan endured a malicious physical attack on him by a teammate, and daily vulgar comments."
Those comments included a threat to sexually assault Martin's sister.
The blame for all this falls in several places: first, the Dolphins themselves for a lack of leadership in the locker room; second, the coaching staff and Ireland for either not being aware or being aware and doing nothing; third, the league for not having enough support for athletes who need a means of conflict resolution that doesn't involve violence; and fourth, the sport itself for reinforcing the "settle it in house" mentality that often ends in pain and chaos.
Head coach Joe Philbin stood up in front of the team Thursday and told them he believed in the players assembled under his watch. That seems twisted. Instead of soul-searching, the head coach stood by and let the witch hunt hone in on a player who couldn't take it anymore.
Is this football's biggest problem? No, that would be the head trauma that all but indisputably leads to later-life physical and psychological trouble. Yet the NFL's cultural problem is closely linked to the concussions topic: the tacit message is to "handle" your own problems "like a man" rather than asking for help. If Martin was fighting a perception that he was weak, there was an unspoken pressure on him to stay in games and ignore injuries. He sought out mental help on the day he left the Dolphins' team facility, and he has been vilified from old teammates and unnamed personnel executives throughout the league. His big error was in realizing there's something beyond "us."
This was all eerily foreshadowed over the summer when Chris Ballard, the Kansas City Chiefs' director of player personnel, addressed a group of players at this year's rookie symposium, saying, "Nobody cares about your problems. They might have empathy for them. But at the end of the day, nobody cares about your problems. When you bring it to work, nobody cares."
Clearly nobody cared about Martin's problems at work. So if the next NFL player can't cope with the stress of hazing or the season, what choice is he likely to make? If the next NFL player gets a head injury and is slow to get up with all his teammates needing him to be "tough" on Sunday, what choice is he likely to make?
The NFL's head trauma problem is directly tied to its culture problem. Just look at how the NFL "handled" its emerging concussion problem. Not by listening to science or the leading experts on the brain. No, it relied far too much on a team doctor named Elliot Pellman who chaired the league's research arm, fought the growing reality that concussions have long-term consequences, and ended up doing untold damage to the NFL's reputation (not to mention its players).
It's sadly fitting that the Dolphins, one of the proudest franchises in the history of the league, are now the embodiment of what the NFL needs desperately to fix. Players will surely say after Monday's matchup with the Bucs how nice it is to finally play in a game. The media will follow suit and ask mostly questions about what happened on the field. The us-against-the-world narrative will be trumpeted, especially if Miami wins.
We can only hope that in the long run, the world is going to win.