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 work ethic
No love for the game
Not mentally tough
Not physically tough
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……..