In the NFL, bullying awareness and prevention happens on a case-by-case basis
In David Halberstam’s outstanding book October 1964, there’s a story about the issues between New York Yankees catcher Elston Howard and teammate Jim Coates. Howard was the Yankees’ first black player, a dignified man and respected veteran, while Coates was a marginal relief pitcher prone to some rather backward attitudes about race in America. Coates wouldn’t shut up about his feelings regarding Howard and other black players, and pitcher Whitey Ford took matters into his own hands. In 1961, Ford arranged a boxing match between Howard and Coates during the team’s annual trip to West Point, and it didn’t take long for Howard to flatten Coates where he stood — which did indeed shut Coates up.
It seems like a sensible solution in theory when considering the news about former Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito and teammate Jonathan Martin. It’s now clear that Incognito bullied and harassed Martin in ways that went far beyond anything generally accepted as rookie hazing. Incognito sent texts and voicemails to Martin that contained racial slurs, threats against Martin and his family, and the insistence that he would defecate in Martin’s mouth.
But the difference between what happened to Martin and what happened to Howard is that when Ford stepped in on Howard’s behalf, he was acting as a team leader — doing what needed to be done, and handling things in-house. Martin had no such options, because Incognito was one of six Dolphins players named to the team’s “leadership council” (a laughable conceit given Incognito’s long history of abhorrent behavior on and off the field), which means that for Martin, the game was rigged against him from the start. Had he taken his concerns to head coach Joe Philbin, as many have wondered why he did not, Martin would have been seen as a rat who betrayed a veteran. Had he engaged in physical retribution, as many have wondered why he did not, he would have been the out-of-control kid who attacked a figure of respect on the team.
Martin took the only reasonable avenue available to him. Frustrated beyond the breaking point by the environment he did not create but was forced to endure, he left the team and sought counseling, This is what a reasonable person would do in any walk of life if the person tormenting him was essentially endorsed by the boss, and retribution was out of the question.
Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin either knew about this issue before it blew up (which makes him an accessory) or he didn’t know about it at all (which makes him an absentee administrator). On Monday, Philbin announced that the NFL would conduct a thorough investigation of the work environment at the Dolphins’ facility. However, on Tuesday, a report from Omar Kelly of the Sun Sentinel indicated that Miami’s coaches went to Incognito and told him to toughen Martin up. If that’s the case, Philbin may be looking for a new job sooner than later.
“I want you to know as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins I am in charge of the workplace atmosphere,” Philbin said. “Since April 10, 2012 when the players first came here and I was the head coach, every decision I’ve made and everything we’ve done to the facility has been done with one thing in mind, and that is to help our players and our organization reach their full potential. Any type of conduct, behavior that detracts from that behavior is not acceptable and is not tolerated.”
But it was acceptable and it was tolerated — partially because Philbin apparently wasn’t in the loop, and partially because Martin didn’t see any way to let Philbin know without it blowing back on him.
And that constitutes a complete and total leadership failure. It’s on Philbin to provide a reasonable environment, and he blew it. What makes Philbin less than totally culpable in this circumstance is the extent to which the NFL culture and mindset endorses people like Incognito, and considers people like Martin weak.
SI.com’s Jim Trotter recently spoke to multiple NFL personnel men and players about Martin, and the general response was startling. “If Incognito did offend him racially, that’s something you have to handle as a man,” one executive told Trotter. “[Dolphins center] Mike Pouncey was a rookie at one point while Incognito was there and you never heard any complaints from him. There’s no other way to put it, other than him being sofTTT!”
“Locker room culture will never be understood unless you’ve lived or have been around it,” another executive said. “This is another ploy in the league’s ‘player safety’ book. Incognito knew who to try. You never heard anything like this come from John Jerry or Mike Pouncey. Instead of being a man and confronting him, [Martin] acted like a coward and told like a kid.”
The second executive did have a moment of insight in an otherwise unenlightened take — Incognito knew who to try. As any successful bully would do, Incognito avoided the people who would fight back, instead settling on a young man he considered to be an easy mark.
Vic Eumont, Martin’s high school coach, told the Palm Beach Post that “Bullies usually go after people like him. With his background, he’s a perfect target.” Eumont hypothesized that in a room full of alpha dogs, Martin was a quiet kid, eager to please and most likely too embarrassed to reveal what had happened to him.
The NFL has no specific rule against hazing. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who had been curiously silent throughout this process, sent a memo to all 32 teams in Dec., 2010, after female reporter Inez Sainz was allegedly harassed by members of the New York Jets football team. In that memo, Goodell wrote that “each of us must fully understand just how powerful an impact our own personal behavior can have on those we work with. and why the individual decisions we make within our workplace must be good ones. It is not enough to stand behind the strong values of the NFL; we must stand for them.”
But with no specific rule in place, each team must handle such things individually, which puts the burden even more on coaches. Several coaches spoke up after the Incognito-Martin incident went public, and it’s no surprise that, to a man, they insisted that this kind of bullying is not tolerated in their locker rooms.
“We do a lot of work along those lines, a lot of positive work, a lot of team-oriented work, a lot of encouragement, but recognizing that there is peer-pressure involved,” Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said on Monday. “I don’t know one thing about [the Miami situation], so don’t ask me what that’s about. I’m not commenting on that other than the fact that there is peer-pressure involved and there is competitiveness involved, but if it goes beyond or over the line, then of course we’re involved.”
Current Denver Broncos interim head coach and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio took a stronger stand in 2011 when he was the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Del Rio banned hazing altogether, with the exception of the rookie talent show, various dance contests, and the time-honored tradition in which rookies carry veterans’ helmets and shoulder pads. It seems like a small thing, but it wasn’t to players like receiver Kasim Osgood, who told ESPN that he was tied up and beaten as a rookie.
“We’re more focused on team building than hazing right now,” Osgood said. “We don’t want to have anybody here feeling like they’re in an atmosphere where they’re not welcome and have that affect them on the field. We want everybody to be as productive as possible. You’re still going to get hazed, but in a different kind of way.”
Former NFL quarterback and current CBS analyst Rich Gannon said this week that he’s seen a wide variance in attitudes on this subject.
“I have absolutely no tolerance for this type of behavior. I’ve seen first-hand how this can divide and really destroy a locker room, a team and quite frankly, an entire organization… Early in my career at Minnesota, I remember the older players, there was a culture that existed where they were worried about their jobs. They didn’t reach out and help younger players. I also went to places like Kansas City where Marty Schottenheimer created a culture and environment where none of this existed. Older players reached out to younger players and welcomed them to the organization and were very supportive. Then I went to an organization in Oakland, which quite frankly made me sick. This culture and environment existed out there with older players bullying younger players.”
When Gannon went to Oakland in 1999, he had enough veteran equity to change the dynamic.
“At one point, I remember coming into the locker room my very first year there, and I saw a group of defensive lineman had our young tight end tied up with tape. They were punching him. They were putting icy-hot and baby powder with water on this guy. They were trying to demoralize the player. I freaked out. I said, ‘I need this guy on Sunday.’ I really thought that I helped to change the culture and the environment in that building … If this exists in your locker room, you have no chance of being successful.”
So, that young player had Gannon as his Whitey Ford — the veteran who would intervene on his behalf. And maybe that’s where the change happens. After all, the locker room is the one sanctuary the players really have. Coaches don’t go in there unless a game has just ended. That’s why Philbin didn’t know about what Martin was going through — if he didn’t know.
On Monday, I asked Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll if he feels comfortable and confident that he would know that one of his players was going through something like this.
“I have asked,” he said. “I just asked around to make sure that everything is okay, and we haven’t had any issues about that because that can be the case. I think we’re in really good shape, and I said, ‘I’m going to go up there and talk to these guys today.’ I want my information to be right. I want to make sure, is there anything going on that I don’t know about? As far as I can tell from the people that I’ve talked to I think we’re in really good shape that way. It’s never been an issue, and that didn’t happen in college either. I just don’t like it; I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”
It’s possible that Incognito will prove valuable to the NFL in his new role as the example of a longstanding problem whose actions have been made public. Just as the New Orleans Saints took the heat for decades of bounties, and players today must pay a retroactive price for the NFL’s longtime ignorance of the real effects of head trauma, Incognito might be the poster child for a new era of personal responsibility — a murderous irony if ever there was one.
“There’s no question, there’s no question,” Carroll said when I asked him if this was yet another case in which perception had finally caught up to reality. “We grow all the time in our awareness of things, and at one time we thought it was okay and then we realized what were we thinking. The concussion thing couldn’t be more obvious of an example of that, and it’s just lack of awareness and education. Sometimes you have to take a couple of steps back to take a step forward, and we had to do that in a number of areas. This is certainly one of them again.”
Well, it could be. It will take the efforts of a lot of people to make that happen, and it starts with shifting the blame to the place it where it belongs — away from the victim, and straight to the instigator. 52 years ago, Elston Howard did it with a fist. The NFL must do it with a culture change from top to bottom.