The Miami Dolphins and Everything That Will Never Make SenseChris Trotman/Getty Images
The Miami Dolphins harassment story has mushroomed into the biggest story in sports over the past 72 hours, and it’s officially one of those sports stories that attracts people who don’t even watch sports. Everyone has an opinion on Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito right now. And for me, the most interesting part has been listening to other athletes and former players process all this. So let’s start there.
Was Richie Incognito wrong? Absolutely. But I think the other guy is just as much to blame as Richie, because he allowed it to happen. At this level, you’re a man. You’re not a little boy. You’re not a freshman in college. You’re a man.
It’s dead ass wrong. But in this world in general people will do what u allow them to do. I am very sympathetic for Martin and if he was my teammate that would have never took place. That I can assure.
What seemed like was going on there was beyond hazing, beyond your normal rookie-type deals. So I’m real disappointed in the leadership in the locker room down there in Miami. I know Jonathan Martin didn’t feel comfortable enough to go to any of the guys because either you’re encouraging it or you’re just turning a blind eye and allowing the guy to get treated like he was getting treated. And that’s the biggest thing that disappointed me the most about the situation is because there was not a veteran guy strong enough to stop what was happening to that young man.
The bullying thing is a very common thing in the NFL. It’s common for rookies to take the older players out to eat and to spend a lot of money. Once a week, usually a defensive rookie or an offensive rookie does it. … I’ve been to dinners where I’ve seen rookies spend $30,000. $30,000! … I can’t stress enough how much people should know that there’s a lot more than what you read in the newspaper. There’s probably more to this story than we know.
Richie was a down-to-earth guy. I hate all this came out about him. It’s really attacking his character. I hope Martin doesn’t have any backlash from this from the rest of his teammates.
[Incognito's] whole makeup is playing dirty and trying to hurt guys. Like I say, just Google it up. There are so many incidents where he’s trying to hurt guys and physically bully guys. I’m glad certain guys are standing up for themselves. I hope the guy from the Dolphins is able to get some help, rebound and continue his career.
They talk about teams being a family. When you’re in the locker room, that’s like your home. … Things are handled in there and said in there that shouldn’t be brought out to the media. And plainly because the media, and really the real world, can’t handle a lot of those things and things that happen in that locker room. … I think [Martin] should have confronted Incognito. I think he should have went up to him and said ‘What’s your problem?’ … Richie Incognito is 100 percent wrong. If a guy goes and says that to you, do you go and run? … Just be a man. I’m just tired of people going and running from their problems.
The NFL isn’t for everyone. … I see this kid, very intelligent kid, you know, his parents are attorneys, he went to Stanford and had these expectations about what the NFL would be, and if you look at his career, he really hasn’t had as much success as he wanted to have, and things have been tough. And I’m sure things got out of hand with him and Richie, and now we are where we are. … The NFL, it’s really like a closed fraternity. It’s really not made for everyone. There are certain people that can play in the NFL, and certain people that can’t. … I don’t think the media, I don’t think fans, I don’t think anyone outside is really in a position to really fully understand what occurs inside of a locker room and inside of a football team.
It’s sad to see, because [Incognito] was a friend of mine and still is. I played with him in college and he had a lot of problems in college. I played with him in the Rams, and not severe issues there … but it seems like this seems to be something that has been haunting him for more than a decade. … This seems to be somebody who’s really got some demons that are out of the building.
I know both [Martin and Incognito] personally. I like both of them. I love Richie. I think he’s a great guy. I don’t think he was out of hand. I have a lot of respect for Richie. I wish he was here.
I was on the phone with my mom Tuesday night. And toward the end of our conversation she said, “I just heard about that guy who was bullying that other guy on the Miami Dolphins.”
I was amazed she even knew who the Miami Dolphins were.
“Disgusting,” she said. “I read about it in the New York Times today.”
“The whole thing is just disgusting.”
This seems to be the popular response from outsiders, and that’s why I can’t stop reading what other players think. Because Incognito definitely seems like a psychotic rage case, at least to anyone who saw the video of him going apeshit in that bar. And he definitely crossed the line harassing Martin — allegedly coercing him to pay $15,000 for a trip to Las Vegas (that he didn’t go on), calling him a “half-n-----”, threatening to defecate in his mouth, and probably all sorts of other horrible things. It’s all awful.
But then, among people close to the game, this isn’t that simple. Some players are pragmatic about what went wrong (Fletcher), a lot of players think the victim should’ve handled this differently (Rolle, Siragusa), some are just happy that one of the dirtiest players in the league is getting his comeuppance (Dockett), and others feel like they need to defend Incognito (Wallace, Dansby). That’s why the reactions from players have been so interesting. Everything that’s black-and-white to outsiders seems pretty gray among actual football players.
The first impulse is to say they’ve been stuck in toxic locker rooms for too long and don’t understand how sane humans behave, but that’s a pretty condescending way to look at it.
Someone like Siragusa sometimes seems like a cartoon full of clichés, definitely. He’s probably the closest thing we have to a real-life panelist from Sports Sesh. But even if guys like Wallace and Siragusa don’t read the New York Times, that shouldn’t invalidate their opinion or the experience it’s based on. Especially since it is experience almost nobody else in this conversation has ever had.
I feel bad for Martin, and I’m pretty sure all players agree on this point. Nobody deserves to suffer, and it definitely sounds like he was suffering. It also sounds like he’s a decent human being who wasn’t necessarily prepared for the insanity he found in the NFL. As his high school coach told the Palm Beach Post this week, “Bullies usually go after people like him. With his background, he’s a perfect target. Before, he wasn’t around Nebraska, LSU kind of guys. He’s always been around Stanford, Duke, Rice kind of players.”
The coach continues: “He always wanted to make everybody happy and make friends and not be a problem. All of his teachers loved him. All of his teammates loved him. His nickname was Moose and he was happy to have that.”
And: “I can see where if somebody was bullying him he would take that to heart, and be concerned and think it was his fault.”
This sucks. If being a good person who’s sensitive and eager to please makes you a gigantic target in the NFL, that’s pretty depressing. Martin apparently hit the breaking point last Monday after a practical joke in which teammates refused to sit with him at lunch. Reading his coach’s description makes that scene even more depressing.
And it’s impossible to disagree with guys like Fletcher and Rolle when they say teammates should’ve stepped in long before things got to this point with Incognito.
But I also feel bad for Incognito. Because he was too far gone to realize he was crossing the line, because, as Brown suggests, it seems like he has got some mental health issues of his own, and because, veterans aside, new reports say Dolphins coaches told Miami’s only offensive Pro Bowler to toughen up Martin. (Note: Something tells me Incognito’s not the type of guy who needs encouragement to try to toughen up teammates — actually asking him to play mind games is like pouring gasoline on a bonfire of testosterone and shitty tribal tattoos.)
Now everything Incognito has done has been taken out of the context of a football team, and a whole bunch of people seem convinced he’s a horrible, disgusting person. Except for people who’ve actually played with him.
Whatever you think of Incognito, the response from players makes the story more complicated than just some evil offensive lineman. Or at least murky enough to leave me with other questions. For example, is this whole thing a case of stupid macho culture run amok in pro sports? Absolutely. This is every MAN UP beer commercial taken to the most awful extreme.
But imagine how screwed up in the head you’d have to be to go out and play offensive line every week for a decade in the NFL. If guys convince themselves that it’s time for them and their teammates to MAN UP every Sunday, and it works, then the macho culture for them — professional football players who play the sport that we just talk about — isn’t necessarily as stupid and juvenile as it seems to everyone else.
If locker rooms are places where verbal and physical and sometimes financial harassment shocks no one, and that works for the majority of NFL players, is it really everyone else’s responsibility to demand change? Probably yes, right? It’s not like $50,000 dinners are really that important to bonding or whatever other cliché veterans use to justify that stuff.
But on some level, locker rooms will always be pretty removed from reality or any sane standards of decency, and we couldn’t change it if we tried.
This isn’t always as bad as it seems. I bet plenty of other athletes exchange horrible insults like the ones Incognito said to Martin, only it bonds them instead of alienating them. It was different this time because Martin was in a position of weakness, Incognito never let up, and there was nobody else to tell him to stop.
But if you’re looking for the other side of this, think about the offensive line from the 2001 Miami Hurricanes. “Vernon [Carey] calls me a cracker, then laughs his butt off,” Miami’s white Canadian center told The New York Times Magazine about his black teammate. “But it’s never racism. I call him a monkey. In the locker room I pour baby powder down his back and call him a silverback like in the movie Congo. When he got calluses on his elbows, I said, ‘Didn’t they lay enough straw in your cage?’”
That group consisted of two black guys, a Hispanic tackle, a Canadian center, and a white guard, and they were all best friends, and together they were one of the most dominant offensive lines in college football history. How that worked is completely beyond me, but it gives us the same reminder we’re getting from the Dolphins story this week — the daily life of elite athletes exists with codes and behaviors so alien to normal life, it’s impossible to peer in and expect it to make sense.
Casual fans and people like my mom may recoil at the details from Miami, but the general absence of horror around the NFL hints at one the bigger lessons from all this. There’s a disconnect between people who play professional sports and people who watch them, and that gulf is probably a lot wider than we realize. Even if a world full of all-access shows and instant information allows us to know more about athletes and locker rooms than ever before, we may never actually understand any of this.
The greatest and most adored athlete of the past 50 years was Michael Jordan, and he was also one of the biggest bullies we’ve ever seen in sports. You can probably find stories all over the place, but here are two. There was Steve Kerr on the radio a year ago, talking about an old Bulls practice. Jordan said something Kerr didn’t like, Kerr snapped back at him, and Jordan just punched him in the face right there on the court.
As Kerr remembers it now: “It was one of the best things that ever happened for me, I needed to stand up and go back at him, I think I earned some respect. But we have a great relationship ever since … you gotta prove it and then once you prove it, you’re fine.”
This is where a bunch of athletes would nod and say, “That’s what Martin should’ve done.”
Then there was Jordan and Kwame Brown during a scrimmage in D.C., as it’s recounted in Michael Leahy’s book about Jordan’s comeback in Washington:
Brown became maddeningly frustrated, a kid convinced he was being repeatedly fouled in intrasquad scrimmages by two veterans, Christian Laettner and Jahidi White, who weren’t quick enough, Brown believed, to stay with him. He would drive toward the basket and feel himself being bumped by a hard hip, sometimes losing the ball, infuriated that the referees wouldn’t blow a whistle. “That was a foul,” he finally groaned.
Play stopped. There was an electric silence. A wide-eyed Jordan was walking toward him. “You fucking flaming f----t,” Jordan exploded. “You don’t get a foul call on a little goddamn touch foul, you fucking f----t. You don’t bring that f----ty shit here. Get your goddamn ass back on the floor and play. I don’t want to hear that shit out of you again. Get your ass back and play, you f----t.”
A stupefied Brown could say nothing. He looked close to tears, thought a witness.
“Sometimes I felt all alone out there, like I was surrounded by sharks,” Brown remembered later. It sounds like that’s how Martin felt on the Dolphins this year.
There could be a thousand reasons Brown became one of the biggest draft busts of all time, but I’ll always be convinced it was Jordan’s abuse that ruined him.
Bullying in regular life is horrible, and so is bullying in sports, because of stories like Brown and Martin. But after thinking way too much about this Dolphins story, I think I’ve come to two conclusions.
First, sports aren’t regular life. Putting a giant group of guys in a locker room and asking them to compete every single day will probably always result in some twisted behavior that looks horrible if you start splashing the quotes all over the media. None of it exonerates Incognito at all, but the background matters here.
Cheering hypercompetitve testosterone junkies on the field and then expecting civility everywhere else seems pretty naive, and judging the actions of Martin and Incognito as if they were two normal civilians is just as big a stretch. Cruelty isn’t that unusual in Incognito’s workplace, and most professional athletes respond differently than Martin. The guys who say we wouldn’t understand are definitely right.
But then … back to Jordan for a second. There are some people who think he could never have been great if not for his insane competitiveness, and if that meant he treated his teammates like shit sometimes, well, that’s just a byproduct of greatness. That’s how he made them great. This is loosely the same argument people make to defend the assholes in the NFL. It’s all worth it to produce winners on Sunday, or something.
The thing is, I watched Jordan, and I’m currently watching LeBron be just as incredible. And LeBron would never punch someone in the face during practice or berate an 18-year-old. Just the same, the Seahawks are run by the relentlessly positive Pete Carroll and staffed with a meditation consultant and a life skills counselor, and they seem to be doing just fine. Winning doesn’t require misery in 2013.
It makes you rethink history a little bit. A famous bully like Bob Knight won big at Indiana when he had superstars to mold, but what happened when he stopped recruiting at Indiana and Texas Tech? What happened when mortality set in with MJ on the Wizards? People fetishize leaders like Knight and Jordan and all their angry tactics, but maybe talent is the only thing that’s ever mattered.
Maybe Jordan won because he was unstoppable as a scorer, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman were Hall of Famers who complemented him perfectly, and guys like Kerr would’ve been great role players with or without the punch in the face. I’m sure teammates feared Jordan, but if he made people better, that might just be because he was an incredible basketball player, not a horrible human being. That’s the second lesson in all this.
Look at Kwame and MJ, look at Mike Rice’s awful basketball teams at Rutgers, look at Greg Schiano’s 0-8 Bucs this year, and most of all, consider that the general idea behind “breaking someone down” is that they’ll be stronger for it in the long run. Then remember that Martin grades out as the 60th-best offensive tackle in football, and that he has been a disappointment for most of his NFL career playing next to Incognito.
The inner workings of a locker room may never make sense to us, and this week is another reminder. But this idea in sports that treating people like crap will ultimately make them better? I’m pretty sure that makes no sense either.
Filed Under: NFL