Richie Incognito incident points to NFL’s lack of control
BY RICK MORRISSEY Sports Columnist November 5, 2013 10:29PM
Updated: December 7, 2013 6:37AM
I see Richie Incognito’s fleshy face, and I see Everybully. I see every kid who ever used size or status or some other advantage to abuse the vulnerable with impunity.
I see a cruelty that too many people have allowed to go on for too long.
I see a league whose lifeblood is violence, which it has marketed and celebrated while coldly looking away from the physical and emotional wreckage left behind. I see a league that can’t control what it has wrought. From a growing concussion crisis to the murder charges against Aaron Hernandez to a bullying incident that has blown up into a raging wildfire, it’s a wonder NFL commissioner Roger Goodell isn’t wearing the haunted look of the hunted.
Violence begets violence, which eventually begets chaos. And here we are, in a place that feels very much like the 1950s of “Back to the Future,’’ with Incognito as Biff the bully and fellow Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin as the socially awkward George McFly.
I see all of that in Incognito’s face, and a wedgie or two he probably has carried out.
Is that judgment by book cover? No. The Dolphins have suspended Incognito indefinitely for his alleged harassment of Martin, which reportedly included threats and racial slurs via voicemail and text. Martin has left the team because of emotional issues. A South Florida Sun-Sentinel report Tuesday said Incognito might have been doing the bidding of Dolphins coaches, who it said wanted to toughen up Martin.
The NFL is still climbing out of the rubble caused by Hernandez, the former Patriots tight end accused of shooting an acquaintance to death. Feel free to go down the list of players who have had off-field troubles over the last few years. Get back to me in a week when you’re done.
The violence of the game, on and off the field, has been building for years, and we might be reaching a tipping point. More and more parents are concerned about letting their children play a game that can cause long-term brain damage.
It takes more than size and skill to be a successful pro football player. It takes a certain kind of personality, one that allows a person to withstand a vicious beating and hand one out with no remorse. The game is a high-speed car accident in which no one involved is wearing seat belts.
Surely you can see the mixed messages to players: Go beyond the limits of violence on the field and try to behave yourself off of it. There have been enough criminal incidents involving players over the last 20 years to suggest the NFL can’t have it both ways but will die trying.
Why are we so surprised by the Incognito mess? I suspect it’s because one behemoth, the 6-5, 312-pound Martin, didn’t respond to another behemoth, the 6-3, 319-pound Incognito, in the way we’d expect a football player to respond — with violence.
That Martin apparently didn’t stand up for himself, that he walked away from his team after being harassed and abused by a teammate, is hard for many people to fathom. They say, How did Martin allow this to happen? They might as well say the rape victim was asking for it.
Another allegation against Incognito is that, beyond the traditional NFL practice of making rookies buy meals for older players, he carried things to an extreme, making Martin chip in $15,000 for a trip to Las Vegas that several Dolphins took. Martin, who didn’t go on the trip, reportedly was concerned about retribution if he didn’t contribute.
It’s hard to believe that coaches didn’t know the extent of the harassment. It’s their job, their responsibility to know. My experience, having been around NFL teams for more than 25 years, is that if coaches believe something helps teammates bond, they’re all for it.
So, hazing in Miami? It’s all in good fun, the coaches’ inaction — or possibly encouragement — said, even though society has been fairly clear that hazing, by definition, isn’t good fun. And, by the way, if a player is having trouble with a teammate, snitching is a no-no. You can see what Martin was up against. The disconnect between the NFL and the real world can be measured in decades.
We watch the game because we’re fascinated by phenomenal athletes trying to beat the snot out of each other. But the more you pull back the curtain on this sport and the more you learn of the high personal cost of playing the game, the less satisfying the collisions become.
I see Richie Incognito’s face, and I see another black eye for a league full of them.