Richie Incognito’s racially-tinged “I’ll kill you” hazing of teammate and former Stanford standout Jonathan Martin continues to roil the NFL, and may now force the league to confront whether the sport’s towel-snapping culture, and even coaches directly, encouraged the hazing of a soft-spoken player.
It’s widely recognized that the NFL walks a thin line between a stand-up sport and barely-contained gladiatorial violence. And while hazing is officially verboten, some versions of it are commonplace in most locker rooms, as rookies are forced to pay restaurant tabs or find their clothes floating in the ice bath.
Mr. Incognito has admitted past drug use and recently referred to himself as “no choir boy.” But the extent to whether he is an errant example of someone who took joshing too far, or more broadly represents a pathology in the sport’s deeply male warrior culture, is an important one, sports culture experts say. And the case, they add, could be an opening for the NFL to confront locker-room sadism.
“Some of the hazing that has traditionally gone on was probably accepted, maybe even encouraged, by coaches, but I think an event like this is going to change that dramatically,” says Jonathan Casper, a sports management expert at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. “This might set a new precedent for where you draw the line” on hazing in locker-room culture.
And it’s that line that’s now in the spotlight as the Dolphins and the NFL deal with the backlash on two fronts: Incognito’s hazing and Mr. Martin’s decision to walk away because, in effect, he didn’t trust anyone inside the Dolphins organization enough to keep his complaints from turning into more retaliation.
The hazing included an expletive-laden voice mail message from Incognito provided by Martin to the press, which included racist taunts and ended with “you’re a rookie. I’ll kill you.”
(Notably, Denver Broncos guard John Moffitt also quit and walked away from a $1 million contract this week, saying “it’s madness … to risk your happiness for money.”)
But introspection over locker-room culture may take a while, at least judging by developments this week in Miami.
The Dolphins suspended Incognito, explaining Sunday that “we believe in maintaining a culture of respect for one another.” On Wednesday, however, news reports indicated that coaches may have been not only aware of Incognito’s focus on Martin, but may even have encouraged the more veteran player – a member of the team’s six-player leadership council – to “toughen up” Martin after he skipped out on two team events in the pre-season.
“I certainly don’t think the NFL wants to be perceived as racist bullies – and that’s what this comes down to, racist bullies,” says Adam Naylor, a sports psychology professor at Boston University. One persistent problem when it comes to sports misbehavior is that “it’s clear when a line is crossed, but we’re not very good at finding where the line actually is,” he says. “We know when it’s gone wrong, but where do you stop a train in its tracks?”
The Incognito blowback is hitting the NFL just as it’s putting revelations about a “bounty” program in New Orleans – where players allegedly received bonuses for injuring star players on the other team – behind it. It also comes at a time when the US is taking a hard look at school-yard bullying after a series of high-profile suicides of young bullying victims.
Martin’s decision to go public hits at “an image the NFL has been trying to desperately change in recent years, and that Incognito personifies: players as conscienceless gangsters who play a game of uncontrolled violence, with sadism and excess as byproducts,” writes Sally Jenkins in the Washington Post.
A major problem for the league, however, is the unique dynamic of male-dominated sports, where emotion, passion, and aggression are necessary to dominate, or least survive, on the gridiron.
The fact is, as Tim Keown writes on ESPN.com, “The NFL needs Richie Incognito more than it needs Jonathan Martin. Coaches … look at guys like Martin, known as soft-spoken and thoughtful while at Stanford, with skepticism. Does he have the killer instinct? Does he care enough? Those questions don't apply to Incognito. Coaches might not want to see him after hours, but they love him on the field.”
Such insights into NFL culture intensified as some NFL players came to Incognito’s defense, suggesting that Martin was to blame by walking away and thus breaking the “locker-room code.”
"I feel like, as players, when it is player-to-player, it can be handled as players,” Denver Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton told USA Today. “It can be addressed. I don't think (Martin) should have gone outside the team and expressed how things are going in the locker room."
Martin left the team last week after an incident in the team lunchroom. It is possible that neither player will ever take another snap in the NFL, which in and of itself would be a harsh commentary, says Professor Naylor. It would mean the NFL failed to recognize and rehabilitate a player with a problem – Incognito was himself bullied as a child – and may have lost a major asset in an elite-college-pedigreed player.
It’s of course difficult to bend tradition and culture with new rules and policies, but the NFL may be forced to try to do exactly that when it comes to hazing and bullying, former New England Patriots player Tim Fox told NECN.com
"The silver lining might be that it's no longer behind the curtain and inside the locker room and so, for young rookies coming up and young players coming up, it will be understood that this is not to be tolerated,” he said.
Indeed, “the great thing about the NFL is that they have such a powerful brand and brand equity that they can withstand negative public perception, and can even use it to their advantage,” says Professor Casper. “Maybe if we look two or three months down the line, we may see that the NFL can use [the Incognito incident] as a way to say they’re a leader in confronting bullying and creating policies to prevent it.”