The official report on the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito case isn’t an indictment of the NFL locker room as a whole, but a case study in what can happen when it’s left to operate without restraints or mature leadership
One of the most telling lines in the Ted Wells report on the departure of offensive tackle Jonathan Martin from the Dolphins last season was this: “As all must surely recognize, the NFL is not an ordinary workplace.”
No, it is not. NFL locker rooms and practice fields are vile and vulgar places. Sure, they clean up a little when the media is let in, but that’s only for 45 minutes four days a week during the regular season. Players spend countless more hours together during which just about anything goes. Most of the behavior the media doesn’t see—the foul language, the harassment, the crude jokes—would get normal people fired on the spot.
But it does serve a purpose. It brings teammates closer together. They become like brothers who fight among themselves and take low blows at each other when the parents aren’t around. It seems strange to the general public, but there is a form of team bonding when 20-year-olds make jokes at each other’s expense or poke fun at each other’s physical appearance. I can’t really explain why or how, but it happens.
Still, there’s a very large however that goes along with that, as the Wells report makes clear: “We also recognize that good-spirited goading often contributes to team bonding,” the report read. “But limits should exist.”
The line has to do with racist and family jokes and, more importantly, the frequency of such jokes. It’s one thing to say something crude once in a while, but it’s quite another for Martin to endure, as the report states, two weeks of sexual jokes about his sister, and for chief instigator/mean girl Richie Incognito and toadies Mike Pouncey and John Jerry to make the abuse seem neverending.
It’s not unusual for lines to be crossed in a locker room, but when they are typically one of two things occurs to get people back in line:
1) The player at the epicenter takes matters into his own hands and shuts the bully up with the only language some people understand: a swift punch to the face; or 2) locker room leaders take command and put the bully in his place.
Martin did not have it in him to take matters into his own hand, as he admitted to his mother in a text message. “I’m never gonna change,” he wrote. “I got punked again today. . . . And I never do anything about it.”
It is not a crime to be the type of person who avoids confrontations, even in a profession that is so much about brawn and aggression. Players can function in the NFL—or should be able to—even if they don’t score highly on the Neanderthal scale. You can be a gentle giant away from the field but become something different between the lines.
Most locker rooms, which are filled with professionals and smart players who can appreciate each other’s differences, let that type of person be. If he wants to be by himself, or if he doesn’t want to be a party to the pranks and the boorishness, fine. Even with an offensive line, a unit wholly different from any other position group because its play is more interdependent on teammates, there is room for a perceived loner who needs to be treated differently from the rest.
If, that is, the leaders are capable of leaping such a low bar of tolerance.
And that was the problem with the Dolphins.
Based on some of the interactions detailed in the report, it seems the rest of the Miami locker room was perfectly mature, realized some line-crossing was done with Martin and offered to accommodate him. And at Martin’s college, Stanford, which is traditionally made up of some of the smartest and socially accepting students and athletes, he seemed to live a happy existence.
But the Dolphins offensive line was different. Martin was sensitive about his poor performances, and the report states that he had bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts in high school. Other NFL players have battled psychological and mental health issues, but Martin had to do so in an environment of non-stop harassment.
That’s what you get when you sign Richie Incognito and allow him to become the de facto leader of his position group. As his college and early pro record amply shows, Incognito was and will always be a bully without a filter, with a frequent disregard for other people’s feelings. “Tornado,” some called him according to the Wells report, for his penchant for flying off the handle.
“We repeatedly heard him described as loud, aggressive and boisterous, with little sense of social boundaries—someone who was constantly making boorish jokes and getting in his teammates’ faces, more so than other players, and frequently more than was welcome,” the report read.
That might as well have come from any scouting report ever written about Incognito. Everyone in the league knows who he was and what he was about. And this is the man the Dolphins allowed to rule the roost with the offensive line? What did they think was going to happen? It’s one thing to have a player like Incognito on your team, even elected into a position of power. But you better make darn sure that you’re keeping close tabs on how he’s conducting himself and treating others. The Dolphins completely failed in that regard, and they should take some of the blame for what happened to Martin. They brought Incognito in and did nothing to head off the problems that have always surrounded him. Former general manager Jeff Ireland, coach Joe Philbin and offensive line coach Jim Turner all take serious hits for that. (According to the report, another Dolphins offensive lineman was repeatedly subject to homophobic insults by his linemates, and Turner, as a joke Christmas gift, gave that player a male blow-up doll; that would probably have been Turner’s undoing even before this week’s Michael Sam news.)
Unfortunately it took Martin’s victimization for the NFL to realize it needs to draw clearer lines and provide more education concerning how a locker room should function.
As the Wells report says, the issue of Martin’s harassment, and his victimhood, is complicated. Martin himself engaged in his share of curious and contradictory behavior. He socialized regularly with the men who were harassing him and cultivated a friendship with Incognito, the ring-leader. In May 2013, after a series of incidents that troubled Martin, he sank into a deep depression and spoke about it with Turner. The report notes that both Turner and Philbin showed genuine concern for Martin’s well-being and wanted to help, but that Martin never told them about the harassment that was at the root of his emotional distress, because he didn’t want to violate the locker room “code” that players shouldn’t “snitch” on their teammates. I understand that such reluctance is common among people in Martin’s position, but when you think you’ve run out of options, don’t you throw a Hail Mary? If Martin had fully opened up to Turner or Philbin at the time, the Dolphins might have addressed the issue right there. Instead it festered for another six months.
Hopefully this is the beginning of the end of this sordid story. I truly believe that what Martin went through will be for the betterment of the NFL. Unfortunately it took Martin’s victimization for the NFL to realize that it needs to draw clearer lines and provide more education concerning how a locker room should function. Even Incognito, who should never play in the NFL again, might see his name used for something good. Maybe in NFL and college locker rooms in the the future you’ll hear someone say, “Come on, man, don’t Incognito that guy. That’s not cool.” It will serve to remind others that while, yeah, vulgar stuff goes on in locker rooms to bring guys together—things that would be horrific to the general public—each person has his limit, and everyone has to respect it.
1. I don’t even know what to say about the news that former Packers, Vikings and Saints safety Darren Sharper has been charged with drugging and raping two women in Los Angeles, and that prosecutors will seek to up his bail to $10 million because he faces similar allegations three other states. I never interacted with Sharper, so I never formed a personal opinion about him, but he seemed well put together. Just another reminder, as with Aaron Hernandez, that appearances aren’t what they seem for anybody, not just NFL players. I feel terrible for the alleged victims.
2. Daniel Kaplan of Sports Business Daily broke the news on Friday that commissioner Roger Goodell made $44.2 million in the last fiscal year. Last year, when it was announced that he had made $30 million, agents and players were shocked. Goodell earned $11.5 million the year before the new 2011 collective bargaining agreement was signed. The new CBA made sure to cut the pay of first-round draft picks. We see where some of the savings are going.
3. Fun fact that may only interest me: When Mike Lombardi was fired as a personnel man by Cleveland before the 1996 draft, as the Browns became the Ravens, his worked helped leave Baltimore with the fourth and 26th pick in the first round. This week Lombardi was fired by the Browns again, along with team president Joe Banner, and in this year’s draft Cleveland has the fourth pick (its own) and 26th overall (from the Trent Richardson trade). In Baltimore in ’96, Ozzie Newsome drafted one Hall of Famer at 4 (Jonathan Ogden) and one future Hall of Famer at 26 (Ray Lewis). Your move, Ray Farmer.
4. No surprise that Lombardi is set to join the Patriots and friend Bill Belichick as a senior personnel executive, as reported by Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe. Before landing back in the NFL with the Browns, Lombardi served as a casual personnel consultant to Belichick.
5. Loved what Seahawks free-agent end Michael Bennett said on NFL Network: “There is no such thing as discount. This is not Costco, this is not Walmart – this is real life . . . . You have a family so you want to be in the best situation for them. . . . It’s definitely a business, and people hate to say that it’s that, but it is what it is. I would love to play for the Seahawks, but they would have to want me back and the numbers have to be right.” If it’s okay for teams to make a business decision in cutting players, then it should be just fine when a player who has leverage maximizes his value.