Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Bully For You

This morning, commentator Charlie Pierce was unequivocal in his assessment of Richie Incognito, and of the people who are supporting him in his moment of notoriety.

A bit of background, for the (forgive me) uninitiated:

Richie Incognito has been suspended indefinitely from his job as offensive lineman with the Miami Dolphins, in the wake of his alleged role in the harassment of fellow Dolphin lineman Jonathan Martin, who left the team and checked himself into a hospital with “emotional distress”.

On today’s “Only A Game” NPR sports news program, Pierce said, “What has gone on in Miami, not merely what happened to Jonathan Martin, but the aftermath, in which people are lining up behind this career thug [Incognito], who put him in the hospital, is a perfect window into the problems with turning human beings into a commodity the way football does it. It is inexplicable to me that people would defend this guy. Absolutely inexplicable. It’s really time for football to re-evaluate itself, to ‘check itself before it wrecks itself’.”

Here are a few details which may be germane to this:

An ESPN online article identified Incognito as an alleged offender in multiple incidents of possible harassment and bullying over the past two seasons, with Martin not the only victim.

A Fox Sports 1 reporter has said that Incognito is alleged to have sent Martin threatening and racially charged messages. A CBS Sports report said that Incognito “has had to be reprimanded in the past for his actions toward team employees,” citing an unidentified source. Subsequently, both CBS and Fox relayed statements from an unnamed source that the Dolphins and the NFL now possess “highly disturbing” texts and voicemails in which Incognito used a racial slur against Martin, and including “a reference to tracking down members of Martin’s family and harming them”. According to the CBS reporter, Incognito’s alleged harassment of Martin had gotten to the point that Martin actually feared for his safety, and felt that leaving the team was his only option.

On Tuesday of this past week, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reported that “multiple sources” have said that Incognito may have been too zealous in responding to orders from Dolphin coaches to “toughen up” Martin, to “get him into the fold”.

Regardless of whether this is an isolated incident for Incognito, if the allegations are true, his dismissal from the team is completely merited – although it’s conceivable that the action was taken in the interest of salvaging the reputation of the team, and in a larger sense the league; an attempt at short-term damage control.


Charlie Pierce asserts that people are “lining up” to support Incognito; and here’s an example: an online article posted on Thursday, entitled “Richie Incognito Never Bullied Jonathan Martin, Says Lydon Murtha”. Murtha is a former Dolphin player.

I don’t have a dog in this fight,” Murtha writes. “I played offensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins from 2009 until the 2012 preseason … I went to college at Nebraska with Richie Incognito, and I consider myself friends with him and Jonathan Martin, but I don’t speak with them regularly and I’m not taking sides. I’m only interested in the truth, which is what I’m going to share, from my own experiences and from conversations with friends still on the team.” Murtha suggests that, based upon his own observations, this story is more complicated than the national media is reporting; that Martin is not blameless in all this, and that Incognito is not as horrible a creature as he is being made out to be.

From the beginning, when he was drafted in April 2012, Martin did not seem to want to be one of the group,” wrote Murtha. “He came off as standoffish and shy to the rest of the offensive linemen. He couldn’t look anyone in the eye, which was puzzling for a football player at this level on a team full of grown-ass men. We all asked the same question: Why won’t he be open with us? What’s with the wall being put up? I never really figured it out.”

Therein lies your first tiny clue: describing adults as “grown-ass men”.

In other situations,” Murtha continued, “when Martin wasn’t showing effort, Richie would give him a lot of crap. He was a leader on the team, and he would get in your face if you were unprepared or playing poorly. The crap he would give Martin was no more than he gave anyone else, including me. Other players said the same things Incognito said to Martin, so you’d need to suspend the whole team if you suspend Incognito.”

Next tiny clue: we’re dealing with a style of leadership that has developed in the NFL, and arguably at the college and high school levels and earlier (let’s just say that when you’re a band member, you’re close enough to the bench to be able to spot a lot of activity), in which borderline abuse is an accepted strategy.

Murtha presses on: “Personally, I know when a guy can’t handle razzing. You can tell that some guys just aren’t built for it. Incognito doesn’t have that filter. He was the jokester on the team, and he joked with everybody from players to coaches. That voicemail he sent came from a place of humor, but where he really screwed up was using the N-word. That, I cannot condone, and it’s probably the biggest reason he’s not with the team right now. … Many more worse things were said about others in the room from all different parties. It’s an Animal House.”

A couple of things, therefore: first, seemingly, the definition of razzing needs a little tightening up. And regarding the last sentence in that paragraph, well, it’s not the worst thing that someone said to someone else, so it doesn’t count.

Murtha writes, more revealingly than I imagine he intended: “[T]he Dolphins organization … said it knew nothing about any so-called hazing. That’s the most outlandish lie of this whole thing. The coaches know everything. The coaches know who’s getting picked on and in many cases call for that player to be singled out. Any type of denial on that side is ridiculous. I have friends on more than a dozen teams, and it’s the same everywhere. What people want to call bullying is something that is never going away from football. This is a game of high testosterone, with men hammering their bodies on a daily basis. You are taught to be an aggressive person, and you typically do not make it to the NFL if you are a passive person. There are a few, but it’s very hard. Playing football is a man’s job, and if there’s any weak link, it gets weeded out. It’s the leaders’ job on the team to take care of it.”

A commenter on the New York Daily News article about this affair, clearly a Dolphin fan, writes: “It’ll be sad if we lost [Incognito]. I don’t think I want Martin back on the team. If you’re not tough enough for the NFL, you really don’t belong there.”

So what we’re watching here is the excusing of harassment, abuse, and, yes, bullying behavior … as just part of the testosterone-driven culture of professional football – and as, again, a leadership skill.


An editorial in Friday’s edition of the Chicago Tribune said:

Bullying in the NFL is a hard concept to wrap your brain around. … On the football field, the character traits that mark someone a bully aren’t much different from the ones that define a Pro Bowl guard. Much of his behavior toward [Jonathan] Martin – the disrespectful taunting on Twitter, the tone-deaf overuse of the nickname ‘Big Weirdo’ – is described by teammates as the sort of affectionate ribbing suffered by kid brothers everywhere. … Rookie hazing is widespread in the NFL, according to players. Most of them make no apologies. ‘This league is a group of elite men, it’s a fraternity, it’s a brotherhood, it’s a lot of things,’ Dolphins defensive end Cam Wake told USA Today. ‘And there is a membership. You have to pay your dues to get certain privileges.’ For Dolphins rookies, those dues included dyeing their hair and sporting goofy haircuts during training camp – something that can’t have gone unnoticed by coaches or the rest of the team’s elected ‘leaders’. Martin’s dramatic exit from the training facility was reportedly precipitated by a cafeteria prank staged by the team’s offensive linemen: when Martin sat down, they all left the table. …

Is this the NFL or the seventh grade?

Many [players and fans] of them think the only thing that went wrong here was for Martin to go public with his complaints. … The league is likely to find that Incognito violated its personal conduct code. His career could be over. But the notion that this sort of behavior isn’t tolerated in the NFL runs counter to the long-standing message that yes, it is.”

And so, the blaming of the victim commences.

We’ve heard this refrain before. “She was asking for it, wearing that outfit.” “It was his own fault for being in the wrong place.” “Why didn’t he tell someone before?” “Why did he tattle?”

Enough, please.

Not long ago, a high school student in a town not too far from where I teach committed suicide after having been systematically bullied by classmates.

Not long ago, one of the drum majors of the Florida A&M University marching band died at the hands of his fellow band members, in a hazing incident.

Quite a long time ago, as a freshman marcher at UMass, I was part of a rookie group that was taken out (by upperclass marchers) to a maze made of chain-link fencing, not far from the football stadium, and encouraged to make their way to the center of the maze to find out what was there. Halfway in, I met a fellow rookie coming out, who said, “it’s a bottle of something,” and we both headed back out. No one died. At all. As band-camp rituals go, it was probably among the least newsworthy. I am not scarred for life. But the next year, when that tradition was changed from The Maze Walk to The Ice Cream Party, I will say I was very pleased.


One commenter on Lydon Murtha’s article about Richie Incognito wrote: I am tired of hearing how certain groups feel they should be immune to the standards of conduct everyone else must adhere to. … When’s the last time you heard of some scandal involving abuse in a profession and they didn’t trot out the old ‘you’ve got to be there to know why it’s necessary, or you can’t judge if you aren’t part of it’ card? Every field wants to cut itself off from scrutiny but since they’re made up of real people, they are no different than all the rest of us and need to brought kicking and screaming back to accepted behavior.”

Never thought I’d actually fervently agree with an Internet commenter. But there it is. Everyone is a human; therefore everyone deserves humane treatment.

We all, all of us, sure do have a dog in this fight.


November 9, 2013 - Posted by | current events, football, sports | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Hi Rob, since I currently find myself having lots of free time ( recuperating), I have been catching up on reading some of the past posts. This one really struck me – as a former school Principal and later as a consultant to schools, I know only too well the effects of the “it’s not really that bad” school of thought. I spent 11 years traveling the country working with teachers, students and admins. in implementing practices for building community in schools – our bottom line being “how we treat ourselves and others so everyone can succeed”. It is a successful model , nationally recognized and honored for changing the culture of a school. It was the most meaningful work I ever did – when I read about incidents that excuse “mean” behavior, I wonder where anyone ever got the idea that by making someone feel worse, they would do better. Show me the examples. Thanks for writing this – I enjoy your blog and want you to know you do have an impact! Marcia

    Comment by Marcia Bradley | November 17, 2013 | Reply

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