The Armchair Quarterback’s Guide To The NFL: Week 10 (No Bullies Allowed)

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Oct 28, 2012; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito (68) and New York Jets linebacker Aaron Maybin (51) scuffle during the third quarter at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

The Armchair Quarterback Take Of The Week

The NFL’s Culture Creates A Bully Friendly Environment

This week we learned that Richie Incognito is a bully. Not just a bully, a mean spirited, racist bully that sabotaged his own locker room as he harassed, bullied, and even extorted his own teammate, Jonathan Martin. Incognito hasn’t been proven guilty in any court of law, but regardless of what other information comes to light, the voicemail that is now out paints a very clear picture. So much so, that the Dolphins have already suspended him indefinitely from the team and most believe he will never play for the Dolphins (or perhaps any NFL team) again.

That’s fine with me. I think Incognito has been exposed for what he is and will now suffer the consequences of his actions. However, I think there is a bigger problem here. The NFL’s culture has created an environment where bullies like Incognito can exist. Incognito may be the worst of the bunch, but he is far from the only one and the NFL would be foolish to treat this as an isolated incident.

The NFL is known as a “man’s game”. It’s played by big physical men. You have to be tough to play in the NFL. In order to succeed you have to physically dominate your opponent. If you aren’t one of the skill position players then you are literally expected to be bigger/stronger/tougher than both those you are lining up against and those you are competing for jobs with. With limited roster spots, even more limited starting jobs, and millions of dollars on the line, these players can’t afford to get labeled as “soft”.

In NFL circles, “soft” is about the worst possible thing you can be. Bad technique? No problem, that’s what coaches are for. Not very smart? Not a problem if you’re talented enough, the playbook can be streamlined to accommodate you. Character problems? Unless we’re talking Aaron Hernandez type issues, it can be overlooked as long as you can produce on the field. Not mentally tough enough to handle the NFL? Now that’s a problem that most teams won’t touch.

In NFL circles, synonyms for “soft” would include:

No heart
No work ethic
No love for the game
Not mentally tough
Not physically tough
A quitter
A whiner
Someone you can’t rely on

There’s probably more you could add to this list, but you get the picture. In the high stakes world of the NFL, it is career suicide to be labeled as “soft”. Therefore, it stands to reason that a player would go to whatever lengths necessary to avoid that label.

Including putting up with an abusive jerk of a teammate like Richie Incognito.

However, despite the fact that 99% of people will find Incognito at fault for the situation, there will still be a negative stigma attached to Martin because of this. Part of us will question his toughness, fair or not. That’s the culture that the NFL has created and embraced.

In fact, there is even a report out by Omar Kelly of the Sun Sentinel that Dolphins coaches actually asked Incognito to try and “toughen up” Martin. The NFL simply won’t tolerate anyone that they view as “soft”.

Don’t believe me? Check out this quote from the Giants’ Antrel Rolle via Pro Football Talk:

“Richie Incognito, is he wrong? Absolutely,” Rolle told WFAN’s Joe & Evan. ”But I think the other guy is just as much to blame because he’s allowed it to happen. . . .

“You know, at this level, you’re a man. You’re not a little boy. You’re not a freshman in college. You’re a man. So I think everything has its limits. So there’s no way that another man is gonna make me pay for something that I choose not to pay for. . . .

See what I mean? That’s the culture in the NFL. If Martin didn’t like it he should have stood up to Incognito and “been a man about it”. Anyone remember what happened between then Chiefs rookie WR Jon Baldwin and veteran RB Thomas Jones? Baldwin broke his hand in a fight with Jones in the locker room. Baldwin was labeled as a player with an “attitude problem” and a bad teammate. A reputation that he never recovered from in KC. I have no idea what the details of that situation were, but what if Baldwin was being bullied and was just standing up for himself and “handling it like a man”? Did that help his career? Did that help him in the locker room? I sure don’t think so.

That’s why the NFL must take advantage of the opportunity that the Incognito/Martin case has given them to do something to keep future NFL players from having to put up with bullying.

It sounds hypocritical, but in theory, I have no problem with the typical rookie hazing you often hear about. I’m talking about things like rookies having to carry the veterans’ shoulder pads after practice or taping someone to the goalpost. Even the idea of a rookie having to buy dinner for the rest of his position group one time or bringing doughnuts to meetings doesn’t bother me. In fact, not only does it not bother me, but I completely understand the thinking behind it. With all the hype and attention that draft picks receive it’s easy for them to come into the league thinking they are the greatest thing in the world despite never having played a snap in the NFL. These traditions are intended to make sure these players understand that they have to earn their place in the league. I get that, I really do.

However, these practices probably need to be completely done away with.

Is that extreme? Maybe. Is it another case of where a few bad apples ruin it for everyone else? Probably.

The problem is that some players/teams use the umbrella of this tradition to get away with flat out bullying players. While a lot of attention is being given to the names that Incognito called Martin (which are deplorable), the story that really bothered me was Adam Schefter’s report that Incognito pressured Martin to pay $15,000 towards a trip to Las Vegas that Martin wasn’t interested in and did not attend. Martin decided that paying $15,000 of his money for a trip he wasn’t going on was the better option than dealing with what would happen if he didn’t pay.

Unfortunately, these stories are not that rare in the NFL. While having a rookie buy some burgers for his position group doesn’t seem like a big deal, the concept has snowballed in recent years. Dez Bryant was stuck with a $54,000 bill for a dinner during his rookie season. That’s ridiculous, and a far cry from picking up some pizzas for the guys in your meeting room. There’s also a big difference between making a rookie bring doughnuts to meetings and making a rookie finance your trip to Las Vegas. Just like there’s a big difference between taping a rookie to the goalpost in good humor and physically abusing them. The problem is, how do you draw the line at what is acceptable? If you can’t define everything in the gray area, you probably have to ban it all and not take any chances.

The following is the opening to a piece on hazing in the NFL from the New York Times:

Nothing like a lawsuit to finally scare the National Football League when it comes to the nasty subject of hazing. The league office and individual teams have always known that hazing occurs. They don’t like it — they hate it, in fact — but rather than try to stomp it out, teams ignore it, turning their backs and crossing their fingers that no one is hurt. No one wants to mess with tradition.

Here’s the thing, that quote isn’t from this week. It’s from 1998 after two Saints rookies were seriously injured when they were forced to “run the gauntlet”. This apparently included running through a bunch of veterans that punched, kicked, and even hit them with a sack of quarters. One player, Jeff Danish, even filed a lawsuit. Yet here we are, 15 years later, and the hazing/bullying issue is still a problem.

While Incognito may not have hit Martin with a sack of quarters, it doesn’t make the abuse any less of a problem. The NFL needs to take action that not only punishes Incognito, but sends a message and sets the precedent that bullying will not be tolerated. It can’t be a slap on the wrist. It must be severe enough that it will scare veteran players off. Otherwise the abuse will continue because so few players will stand up and say something about it. The risk of being labeled as “soft” simply won’t be worth the “reward” of getting their teammates off their back. Most players would rather fork over the money or take the insults and not put their reputation (and career) at risk.

Think of it this way, will you ever hear Jonathan Martin’s name again and not think of him as the player that was bullied? That will stick with him as long as he plays in the NFL, and other players will not want that same stigma attached to them. Even if Martin’s team accepts him back with open arms (that’s yet to be determined), don’t think for a second that every game some opposing defensive player won’t harass Martin about this situation in order to get in his head. So the NFL must make the penalty so severe that veterans don’t want to risk it. The “reward” of whatever they are getting out of bullying the rookies needs to not be worth the consequences if they get caught. Not just to validate Jonathan Martin, not just to punish Richie Incognito, but for every player that has gone through the same type of abuse Martin received and didn’t say anything about it. Not just to prevent some big name rookie from picking up a $54,000 tab, but for the rookies that may be having to pick up a $2,000 tab when they may not even end up making the 53 man roster and don’t have the millions of dollars that the first round picks do.

The NFL will always be a “man’s game”. The players will always have to be strong and tough in order to succeed. That doesn’t mean that a NFL player can be subjected to any kind of mistreatment that their “teammates” can think up and they just have to suck it up and take it. If the culture that the NFL has created is going to favor bullies like Incognito, then the NFL must make sure they do whatever is needed to prevent those actions from happening again. They can’t treat this as an isolated incident because then other players will just continue to do what they’ve always done. These players will get away with it because most players do what Jonathan Martin did and speak up about it. They’ll just put up with the abuse so that they aren’t labeled with that dreaded word, “soft”. The NFL has the power and authority to do something about this.

I for one, really hope that they do.

Now on to this week’s game predictions……..

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  • Jason Seibel

    Hey Lyle, great piece. However, I do disagree with you slightly. I tend to agree a bit more Antrell Rolle and the soundbyte you quoted. This wasn’t the case of a 18 year old senior bullying a 14 year old freshman. To that end, there is no excuse and no tolerance. But Martin is an adult, 6’6″ and over 300 pounds. To use the moniker bullied, I think over exagerates what happend.
    Now let me be clear, here. Incognito is an ass hole who should be banned from the NFL for no other reason than that. Look at his name. His parents doomed him to that fate when they named him Richie Incognito. I mean really? But I digress. The racial slurs and the outright grand larceny is not ok. But at some point Martin has to stand up for himself. At a minimum, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, he’s got to talk about it with the coaches or other senior leaders on the team.
    You brought up the example of Baldwin and T. Jones in the KC locker room. But you answered your own question in the statement. We don’t know what happened. Covered under the guise of National Security, Pioli and Haley shut that situation down faster than a leak at Gitmo. Was it rookie hazing? I guess it could have been, but unlike what we’ve been hearing about Incognito, Jones was a respected locker room leader, not the kind of guy that’s going to extort a rookie for thousands of dollars for hookers and blow.
    At the end of the day, there’s no room for bullying in any type of environment, be it elementary schoool or an NFL locker room. I’m just saying that if you have the means to protect yourself, you do that versus the easy out that Martin took.
    Great morning read! Thanks for taking the time to write it up.

    • ……ChiefsFan……

      I usually agree with you Jason, but in this case I’m siding with Lyle (at least until more details come out). How do we know Martin didn’t bring this issue to his coaches? As we have seen from incidents in the past coaches aren’t always smart enough to correct a situation like this, and sometimes they are involved(bountgate).

      All I’m saying is Ritchie has been a troubled individual since his days at Nebraska, and not knowing him personally or the full details of the situation, I don’t know how serious the threats were.

      I for one am withholding judgment on Martin until the situation is fully resolved. Having both of his parents be lawyers, coupled with the extremely litigious society we live in it is no surprise to me that he chose to take the path he did.

      He may be “soft”, but he is not weak.

    • myndflyte

      I agree that Martin probably should have brought this to the coaches before going all public with it (he may have, who knows). But people deal with bullying in different ways and just because he is 6’6″ and 300 lbs doesn’t mean he can’t be bullied. The definition of bullying is: to cause (someone) to do something by making threats or insults or by using force. So yes I think he was being bullied. The way Martin knew to deal with it was to walk away. But to actually blame Martin for the continued hazing is just absurd. No matter what he did, he was going to label himself. If he starts something with Icognito, he gets labeled a nuisance. If he tells the coaches, he is labeled a snitch. If he walks away, he is labeled a p*ssy. The NFL is the only one that can step in and stop this kind of stuff from happening.

  • SmartThinking

    You can look past the blank stares and shrugged shoulders of the Fins’ coaches if you want to but I know better. Incognito’s actions simply could not occur in any locker room without the approval, tacit or outright, of a coach or two. This would tend to make me understand why there wasn’t one Dolphin player on that team with a conscience and balls enough to stand up to Incognito or go tell a coach. Incognito had the approval, in some way or another, of at least one coach. This kind of crap goes on in every locker room I’ve ever been in. There’s always one guy who lacks the character and makes it hell for everyone else. What I find most deplorable about this story is that it continued over time and not one Dolphin player came to Martin’s defense, even out of pity. There’s more to this story and I hope we get to hear it.

    • ……ChiefsFan……

      I just heard on the radio that the Dolphins locker room is backing up Incognito. What a bunch of crap! Even if his actions were encouraged by the coaching staff what he did is still very unacceptable.

  • joerockt

    “If you can’t define everything in the gray area, you probably have to ban it all and not take any chances.”

    Wow. Just wow. If you want an example of a fundamental problem in this country, just read that sentence. Who cares if its a benefit to assist with comradery among 10′s of thousands of players over the years. Some meat head takes it too far and the ban everything cries commence. Its beyond absurd.

    • Lyle Graversen

      If we were talking about something that would have a major impact on the game, I would be with you. But how much do they really need to tape guys to goalposts and have rookies buy dinner? How much good does that really do?

      • ahrcshaw

        Nothing it is ridiculous, I believe I read somewhere where the Panther player groups (D Tackles, R Backs, WR’s,) rookies carry the last years pros gear on and off the field until the first Cut. I can not imagine much more as its is truly stupid.

      • joerockt

        My point was more to the fact that whenever something is perceived as “bad” by outside sources who really have no clue, because of the pusification of this country, the quick and easy route is to just say “Ban it”. I could care less about rookie hazing, but if you listen to interviews with other players, 99.999% of them say its harmless and many of them say its a right of passage, similar to rushing a fraternity (a practice that’s had its share of issues over the years).

        I think maybe some NFL rules might need to be put in place to protect rookies from excessive hazing/bullying, but to say “Ban It” outright is pathetic.

    • ahrcshaw

      It gets pretty sad when anyone has to tell a group of grown men or women not to hurt someone by hazing or bulling, or intent to injure during the action of the sport. Sports by the most part are teams, meaning a consolidated effort on all those playing or coaching. Why the players or Coaches of wives or janitors didn’t speak up and stop it when it started is beyond me. There is nothing wrong with requiring them to carry the groups helmets until they make the team roster, there is no question some players need to be put in their place, but this is far, far, out of hand.

  • chas territo

    I say those 2 coaches should be suspended as well as Incognito!! As for the rules we have too many now, but rules have to be made to stop this crap, now not later. Teeth need to be part of these rules, severity. As happens with every stain, besmirching, tainting and other things that go against the NFL, excuses are made, excuses said enough times become accepted excuses and life stays the same. Martin, at first glance is a pussy, a coward, baby or whatever flavor of the day bests/unbests describes him should have punched Incognito in the mouth and kept punching till he broke some part of Incognito’s face!! Then all this would not be out there crating havoc for the Dolphin’s and the league! It wasn’t, so now dealing with it is in play. Do the right thing NFL mgmt, be accountable and lest we forget all things mgmt with the Dolphins needs to be addressed, now! Do not enable players, coaches or mangements through out the league!! GO BILLS!!

    • ahrcshaw

      What about the idle players, or pier pressure? At first site looking at the videos this guy had a big anger management problem. Quite frankly I can not imagine all the other players not condemning his actions or the use of harmful hazing. I played all sorts of sports plus football in HS, Service, and College and would never have allowed this or anything close to it happen.

  • refuse2lose

    You might be mistaken when you called RI a racist. People(both BLACK and white) have come out in support of him and said he did not just go after black players… he was an EQUAL OPPORTUNITY BULLY

    • Lyle Graversen

      When you use the “n” word, there is no excuse, even if you pick on white players too.

      • ahrcshaw

        Words mean nothing, the attitude and purpose is what is important. When you get right down to it anyone who cusses or uses validity has a missing link, its called vocabulary and is a sign of ignorance. The definition or interpretation of the N word is nothing but an excuse by both racists. Meaning it takes two to make it racist.

  • ahrcshaw

    I can understand how this could have started, but Bullies will be Bullies, the Coach the rest of the Players should have stopped this from the beginning I was not one of those big tough guys, but I don’t think a Billie would have tested me either, nor would I sit silently by while one bullied someone else. The money thing is just stupid and anyone should have stood their ground. What ever it takes Hazing, bulling should be stopped, preferably by the players themselves. Go Panther and pound those 49ers.