It’s difficult to make much sense of the actions in the Miami Dolphins locker room because it’s a culture most of us don’t understand and can’t comprehend.
The players are different from us: They’re bigger, faster, richer, more celebrated, more condemned, more confident, more insecure than the couple down the street or the person who sits across from us at work.
We know them, but they don’t know us.
That leads us to people like Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. Both are big, imposing men. Incognito stands 6-foot-3, 319 pounds. Martin, equally imposing at 6-5, 312 pounds.
Is one a bully? Was one bullied?
At first, their size doesn’t seem to fit the stereotype of a bully, one where a bigger person picks on a smaller one. Yet, bullying is as much a mental attack as it is physical. Assessing blame is hard to determine. Besides, how can someone on the outside tell what’s happening inside a team complex? You can’t.
But that’s not the case with Miami Dolphins. It’s the responsibility of everyone from the team president to the general manager to the coach to know what’s happening on their property. That was not the case.
Now someone is going to pay the price. There’s a jocularity around a locker room; it’s part of the team-building process. But if you read from the heavily-edited electronic exchanges between Incognito and Martin, it’s clear there was an ugliness and a message of disrespect that has no place in civil society or a competitive business environment.
This latest episode comes at a time when the National Football League is ill-prepared to confront another public relations debacle. Concussion issues have both immediate and long-range implications. The NFL doesn’t test for Human Growth Hormones, yet its players are behemoths. Players getting arrested are a reoccurring story across the league, none worse than the murder charge former New England star Aaron Hernandez is facing.
Ted Wells, a New York lawyer with experience in investigating troubling sports issues, has been hired by the NFL to figure out what happened in Miami. Commissioner Roger Goodell would like an explanation as promptly as possible, but thoroughness is more important than expediency. "Consistent with doing a thorough investigation, we have not imposed a specific timetable on him," Goodell said in a release issued by the league.
Pro football seems to celebrate the notion that the game has evolved into a “violent” sport until something goes wrong. Selling violence as a product is illogical.
The language exchanged by Incognito and Martin does speak to a violent, out-of-control culture. Incognito’s texts are racist and damaging, even if he tries to pass them off as friendly banter.
I remember the first time I got close to a pro football field as the game’s final minutes wound down. Two impressions remain from that experience: One, the players were bigger and faster than I ever imagined; secondly, I have never heard such profanity in my life – constant and obscene.
That insight into the pro game may have been anecdotal but it also was insightful. Pro sports at that level require an extreme mental and physical toughness. If you don’t have both, you won’t stick around in the NFL for very long. You learn to play aggressively or you stop getting a paycheck.
Incognito’s reputation has long been associated with charges of threats and intimidation. He had problems at Nebraska that led to a suspension and then he transferred to Oregon where he never officially joined the team.
"There's certain people out there who are just punks, and he wants to be that kind of guy," former Seahawks and Lions defensive end Lawrence Jackson told the Associated Press.
Martin was more passive – a trait not conducive to being an offensive lineman in the NFL. His aloofness didn’t win over other players and coaches, leading them to question his commitment. In the end, maybe he left the Dolphins because the game wasn’t fun.
In time, the NFL’s New York attorney, hopefully, will offer some clarity to this bizarre story.
Then again perhaps Incognito and Martin are simply misfits in a league that has lost sight of its mission.
Wait and see.
Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for the CNHI News Service. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.