The Mess In Miami
We don’t know the news yet out of Green Bay, though Aaron Rodgers appeared to suffer a serious left shoulder injury early in the Green Bay Packers’ loss to the Chicago Bears on Monday night. “He has a shoulder injury,’’ said coach Mike McCarthy after the game. “They want to run more tests.’’
If Rodgers has to miss time, the division and conference races will be hugely affected. Backup Seneca Wallace looked tentative and uncomfortable against the Bears. The Packers, Bears and Lions are tied atop the NFC North at 5-3. Jay Cutler is due back to the Bears this week from a groin injury. Matthew Stafford is healthy in Detroit. So the Packers could go from a prohibitive division favorite one day to playoff long-shots the next. One thing’s for sure: Green Bay needs to put a claim in for quarterback Matt Flynn, who was waived by the Bills on Monday.
But my column today, instead of focusing on the uncertainty of the Rodgers diagnosis, will turn south, to Florida, to the story of the moment—the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin saga.
* * *
Richie Incognito, the starting left guard of the Miami Dolphins, played alongside Jonathan Martin, the starting left tackle, for a year and a half, before Martin left the team eight days ago. Understand the importance of the relationship between a guard and tackle who play alongside each other: They must understand each other’s movements, each other’s strengths, each other’s weaknesses. I remember covering the New York Giants for four years in the eighties, and Billy Ard, a guard for the team, once told me: “The guys alongside you, the tackle and the center, they’re your brothers. In the game, they’re more important than your brothers. For you to survive, it’s up to them.”
A band of brothers. We hear that a lot. In the military, in football, in many walks of life. What I don’t understand, in this Incognito-Martin dispute, is how one brother can pick up the phone and call another brother and say what Incognito said to Martin, in what was reported Monday by ESPN. Please, if you can’t stand rough language, skip over the next paragraph. I am only using it, censored as much as I can, to show you how brother Incognito talked to brother Martin after knowing him for a year.
The only way to make this real is to show you the reality. If you don’t want to read what Incognito said to Martin, please skip the next paragraph:
“Hey, what’s up, you half n----- piece of s---. I saw you on Twitter. You been training 10 weeks. [I want to] s--- in your f------ mouth. [I’m going to] slap your f------ mouth … You’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”
I have been around players, and the hazing rituals for rookies. I have not known it to stretch into second seasons, which apparently it did with Martin, at least by Incognito. And this one seems particularly harsh. My question is: Why should hazing of any kind exist in the NFL?
Hazing in the NFL reminds me a bit of fighting in the NHL. Some fans of hockey, and NHL insiders, want fighting banned. I’ve wondered: Other than satisfying base interests of some fans, what good does fighting serve? Why is it in the game? I’d ask the same thing here. No one minds the first-round pick being on donut duty all season—bringing four dozen donuts to practice one or two days a week is not hazing; that’s being a high-priced delivery boy. Fine. Dressing funny? Fine too. But I start getting creeped out when rookies get tied to the goal post and get their heads shaved, or get stripped naked. How, exactly, does that build camaraderie? No one’s ever been able to give me an answer on that one.
I think the NFL—in the same way it banned all bounties after the New Orleans Saints’ scandal—must think about banning anything that reeks of hazing. Just because this tradition has been handed down doesn’t make it smart, or right. You can’t convince me the league would be worse off without even mild hazing. I need a player to stand up and shout me down on this, and tell me why it’s necessary, why it’s good for chemistry. I don’t see it.
* * *
I wanted to give the scores of you who wrote me on this topic the chance to be heard in my regular mailbag, so let's head over to Page 2 and dive in.
FOOTBALL FAMILY? WE DON'T KNOW. We read so much about how teams consider themselves family, brothers, etc., and then we read about how this situation with Martin might not be that unusual, and about how that is ‘typical’ in NFL locker rooms. Much of this sounds like more than just typical spats between brothers. How do these two dynamics go together—is ‘family’ a media-created illusion?’’
Great question. Many of us on the outside of a locker room truly don’t know the answer. But it’s a question NFL players need to seriously consider, because the public won’t stand for business as usual after reading the Incognito stories.
THE TIME TO JUDGE WILL COME. I found your passage Monday saying there is “no single person or entity” at fault extremely disturbing. I ask you to retract your statement and fully condemn the actions of Richie Incognito.
To call $15,000 extortion under threat of retribution, racial slurs, and threats to Martin’s family ‘some pressure’ perpetuates a ridiculous notion that players should just man up and take all the harassment coming their way. In ANY other field, Incognito would be fired the instant human resources got wind of such behavior. The NFL is not special. That kind of behavior is not acceptable in any work place. To minimize what Incognito was doing seems to place the blame at Jonathan Martin’s feet—for not simply accepting the punishment meted out by his coworkers.
What Martin has dealt with is no different from what millions of kids endure in school ever day, behavior which leads to many seeking to take their own lives. I’m sure there’s at least one bully out there who looks at rookie ‘hazing’ and says, ‘Well, if it’s OK in the NFL, it’s OK in my high school.’ It is only when we call out the perpetrators and NOT the victims that we will be able to erase this scourge from our society.
I certainly didn’t blame Martin. Nor did I blame solely Incognito for following a culture he was raised in the game with. I didn’t know about the highly disturbing voice mail when I wrote Sunday night. My criticism of Incognito would have been harsher had I known about his deep and ugly rip job (jobs?) of Martin. But more than that, I’d like to see the full weight of evidence come out, and I’d like to hear from the parties themselves. There will be time to parcel out blame. Let’s collect all the information first.
HAZING ON HARD KNOCKS. How are kids supposed to learn hazing is inappropriate when they get to watch it first hand on HBO's "Hard Knocks" every year? What is the NFL really doing to make sure this is not happening in locker rooms? In my eyes, not much. ‘Hazing’ refers to any activity expected of someone joining a group (or to maintain full status in a group) that humiliates, degrades or risks emotional and/or physical harm, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate.
Thanks for making your voice heard on this. You raise an excellent point.
HAZING NEEDS LIMITS. I think that Ross Tucker’s statement (“If you’re mentally weak, you’re going to get picked on”) is deplorable in this situation. These rookies and second-year players are not making $50 million guaranteed anymore. For a guy like Martin to not want to give up half of his paycheck for teammates to go on a Vegas vacation is completely understandable, especially when he did not even go. Tucker implied it was Martin being mentally weak. I see it as an instance where Martin has to go home and explain to someone that he had to give up half of his check. I dare anyone to have to do that. Go home and face your spouse and tell them you had to give your co-workers half your check, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
I think if teams and specialty groups want to do this “hazing” to rookies, that’s fine. While they are in their first training camp, have the rookie carry pads, play books, give them funny hair styles, and give them the tab at dinner a few times. Then when camp is over, the hazing is over. There’s no reason to have the young guy continue to pay until the next rookie comes in and can be taken advantage of.
I agree with most of what you say. The one thing I’m unsure about is the rip job on Tucker, who is simply stating the fact of life in current NFL locker rooms. He lived it on four teams. He didn’t make the rules; he simply lived by them. But I understand what you’re saying. I think America is going to be crying out for a culture change, as I wrote in the top of this column.
MARTIN IS NOT THE WEAK ONE. I felt compelled to write in after I read Ross Tucker’s quote, ostensibly accusing Dolphins lineman Jonathan Martin of being “mentally weak.” If anyone is weak in this situation, it’s Richie Incognito. It’s hard to treat people with respect and accept that others might not go along with you all the time. Incognito is your garden-variety bully—picking on (or ganging up on) someone he perceives is the easiest mark.
Martin is the strong one in this situation. He stood up against a bully—accepting that he might be ganged-up on or shunned by his teammates—and he stated in no uncertain terms that this behavior wasn’t acceptable to him, and he reported abusive behavior to the proper authorities.
Thank you for your sentiment. You mirror many people in my readership group.
A MATTER FOR THE AUTHORITIES? Let’s just say that your big, burly, mean-looking neighbor knocks on your door one night and informs you that in order for you, your family and your pets to remain healthy, he’s going to require some sort of tribute. I’m not a lawyer but I’m pretty sure that falls under the heading of “Criminal Behavior,” don’t you think?
Well, if there’s ANY truth to the allegations against Incognito of essentially similar behavior, then why is the NFL “investigating” this and not the local District Attorney’s office? It drives me nuts when entities such as school districts, universities, the NCAA, NFL, etc., think THEY are the entity in charge when a crime may have been committed.
If they want to investigate the racial slurs and other conduct contrary to NFL and team regulations, that’s one thing. But if there was possible criminal behavior involved (extortion?), then it’s time to call the real cops. Let THEM decide.
Consider your voice heard. And thank you for it. Before we call in the local authorities, let’s see how the team and the league react.
THE NFL WILL TAKE ACTION. I know some pro athletes are more mature than others, but there is a problem within sports that has been well documented over the years about how athletes at certain times lack a sort of “standard” that the rest of us live by. Hazing or bullying or poking fun or whatever you want to call it has repercussions beyond just the on the field or in the locker room environment. At a time when children are committing suicide because of bullying, athletes are allowed to use behavior that would not be accepted in any other facet of society. As a sports fan, I am ashamed; as a parent, I am mortified; as a member of society, I feel this has to stop and now!
If the allegations against Richie Incognito are true, he should be banned for life. He won’t though; we all know that because the NFL always puts talent over responsibility/accountability. I can list a hundred instances where the behavior of athletes would get them fired in an instant in any other industry and the major sports leagues continue to reward these people. How can this be stopped and will the NFL ever really make this a priority? Thus far, the league has shown a lack of insight or delayed response into most areas of societal norms.
I will tell you this with certainty—the NFL is paying attention to this. The NFL over the years has listened to the public very often. I would be surprised if changes don’t come out of this, and I would be more surprised if the voices of Americans who are outraged by this behavior are not addressed.
THE MESSAGES WE SEND. Peter, I’m frankly very disappointed with your analysis of the situation in Miami. I am especially disappointed with your noting that this means that the team is continuing without two offensive linemen. Is that really what is important here? And your blah conclusion that “the investigation is continuing.” Is that really the message that you want to send? You know, people read what you have to say. We almost certainly have a Federal crime situation here, and that’s the best you can do?
I realize that, given your position, you try to balance your opinion with not passing judgment on a situation. I think you have failed miserably here. You seem to feel free in expressing your personal opinion in other situations that fit your character; yet here you are strangely passive. I have not written in before, but your blasé treatment of this situation rankles me. Thank you.
I appreciate your words. And they really have an effect on me. I think when you have to make a judgment before all of the facts are in, you have to be careful to consider all of the alternatives. At 1 a.m. Monday, I didn’t know the specifics of voicemails from Incognito to Martin. I didn’t know the specifics of the voicemails or old tweets between Incognito and Martin. What I did know, is that many players in the NFL who I trust as good people—Ross Tucker, Willie Colon—believed fervently that mild hazing has a place in NFL locker rooms. A day later we realized that this is more than mild hazing. Maybe I should have been tougher on Incognito in the middle of the night on Sunday. I certainly would be as I write this, late Monday.
THE FULL STORY HASN’T BEEN TOLD. I was really disappointed with the comments of Ross Tucker, usually one of the more thoughtful NFL analysts. “If you’re mentally weak, you’re going to get picked on.” Great. So Martin’s at fault. It’s not just fear of retribution that discourages people from reporting bullying incidents; it’s brain-dead comments like Tucker’s.
This story is a Rashomon-like minefield with Martin, Incognito, the organization, and doubtless teammates all with differing accounts. I think Adam Schefter and others are doing a great job of reporting, but I would encourage the pundits to pause a moment when they think they know what happened, who did what, and why. Nobody in the press knows why Martin didn’t fight back more or complain earlier, or what he was threatened with. I’d sure want some of those answers before I accused him of being “mentally weak.” Hell, what if a guy like Aaron Hernandez braced a rookie for $15,000? Would Tucker suggest just punching him in the snot box as well?
Assuming there’s no such rule on the books, the NFL and NFLPA need to hammer out a hazing policy. Singing in rookie talent shows is one thing; a $30,000 restaurant bill is another. If I were a head coach, I’d clamp down on that crap in a big way. I’d want rookies to consider themselves productive members of the team from Day 1.
This is a fantastic email. What really bothers me about this story is the fact that a player who is deemed weak has not had the chance to have his full story heard. Nor has Incognito, quite frankly. This is one of those stories that should make us long for a weekly news magazine, instead of an hour-by-hour recitation of the latest whatever on Twitter and all of the websites. I’m not blaming modern media for this, but I do think four or five days from now, all of us might feel differently when we know about 150 percent more facts than we do this morning.