Is It Unfair to Expect NFL Players to Behave Like Grown-Ups?

The response to Richie Incognito's alleged harassment of a teammate just shows the futility of trying to hold the NFL to the same standard as any other workplace.
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Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito (68) and tackle Jonathan Martin (71) stand on the field during an NFL football practice in Davie, Fla. on July 24, 2013. (AP / Lynne Sladky)

Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic) discuss the implications of the allegations against the Miami Dolphins' Richie Incognito.


Hruby: When I started my first newspaper job at the Washington Times, nobody duct-taped me to a curbside paper dispenser. When I later joined ESPN.com's Page 2, I did not have to treat established writers like Ralph Wiley and Bill Simmons to a $30,000 dinner. I've been at my current Sports on Earth gig for close to a year, and not once have my duties included fetching doughnuts and carrying other writers' laptops.

To the contrary, I was treated like an adult. So what makes the National Football League so different?

Start with this: Richie Incognito seems like an insufferable asshole. According to reports, the Miami Dolphins offensive lineman sent a series of vicious, threatening, racist, unhinged texts and voice messages to teammate Jonathan Martin. Incognito has been suspended indefinitely as the team and the NFL investigate the matter. The Miami Herald reports that "he's done ... he'll never play another game here." Public condemnation of the alleged bullying and harassment has been swift and widespread, with former NFL linebacker Bart Scott calling for Incognito to be kicked out of the league entirely.

Ahem.

Look, insufferable assholes can be found in pretty much every line of work. Politics, banking, Little League coaching. Professional football, however, uniquely enables them. Encourages them. Promotes the use of humiliation and intimidation in the service of group hierarchy. As the Incognito story broke, commentators and ex-players alike noted that Incognito's behavior "crossed a line" between unacceptable indignities, like menacing messages reading "you half nigger piece of shit," and acceptable indignities, like Miami rookies reportedly paying for team dinners and being given penis-shaped Mohawk haircuts by veterans, two practices that are hardly unique to the Dolphins.

Indeed, NFL locker rooms long have housed a culture of hazing, pranking, and name-calling. Rivers and eddies of disrespect, all flowing one way: Top to bottom, from veterans to rookies. Newcomers have to carry equipment, dress up in ridiculous outfits, buy food, and generally take crap in order to be fully accepted by the team and tribe. Why? Because that's the way things always have been done. Because, as The New York Times puts it, "most incidents come with the tacit, unsupervised approval of coaches and executives, who see the pranks as a rite of passage, a worthy bit of team-building and character-strengthening."

I'm not sure this makes sense. I don't see how being demeaned in ways big and small—via a silly, penis-shaped haircut or a string of nasty, vile texts—strengthens character or fosters team spirit. I don't get why a group of adults in a supposedly professional environment has a line to be crossed in the first place, why some indignities are seen as positive and necessary. I read about Incognito, and his transgressions over said line, and I can't help but wonder if NFL locker rooms are full of insecure boy-men who are desperately trying to establish their places in an unspoken pecking order, who have yet to learn the childhood lessons that the best way to earn respect is to give it, and that dignity shouldn't work on a sliding scale.

Hampton, Jake, am I missing something here? Is locker-room culture less childlike and immature than it appears? And why is the Incognito story resonating so much outside of the sports world?


Stevens: A few years ago, I interviewed Matt Birk, an NFL All-Pro lineman who went to Harvard. Birk, talking about the silliness of NFL locker rooms, described one ritual that perplexed me—players having contests to see who can drink the most milk without puking. Birk, for his part, was shocked that I'd never heard of such a thing, let alone never participated in one. 

To me, that demonstrated just how far football culture is from everyday life. This was coming, after all, from a grown man with a family, who graduated with an economics degree from one of the world’s great universities. Yet he lived in a world most of us would consider alien and bizarrely puerile. 

Why wouldn't he? Football is an incredibly bizarre way to make living. 

The key difference here is between hazing and harassment. The latter is always unacceptable, of course. Hazing, though, serves a purpose because, at a very primal level, we care more about things when we suffer to get them. Despite the sniffing condescension of The New York Times, hazing in safe and limited doses can be a perfectly useful part of team-building. Pranks and weird rituals build team spirit, the locker room functioning as a sort of boot camp, where teammates demonstrate emotional toughness, earn trust, or simply learn how their teammates will react under pressure. 

That sort of thing may not be necessary with jobs like ours, Patrick, but the NFL is not your typical workplace. Not much that goes on in a locker room would be acceptable in the modern corporate American workplace. Walking around naked, for instance.

One of the appeals of the game is that it makes extreme psychological demands. Players must act like savages on the field and gentlemen off it. Incognito, clearly, has never been able to draw that line, as reflected by his conflict-riddled career. He used the cover of a locker room as a way to bully. The fault lies with him, and the Miami coaches and staff who failed to either notice or care what was happening. 

But judging what happens in a locker room by the standards of the modern American workplace is ridiculous. There's nothing wrong with making a rookie carry equipment or get a funny haircut, and to equate weird pranks and juvenile rituals with Incognito's racial slurs and threats of violence is simply unfair. 

Jake, what do you think? Is Incognito just a one-bad-apple situation, or a tip-of-the-iceberg one? Is he simply weird and sick, or the symptom of a much larger sickness?


Simpson: He's both, Hampton. Incognito's verbal, emotional, and perhaps physical terrorizing—let's call it what it is—of Martin suggests that he's a behemoth of a bully who should probably be kept away from all people, not just his teammates (read about his dust-ups here and here). But the National Football League is full of large, super-athletic young alpha males who willingly, often eagerly, commit violent acts dozens of times a day for dozens of week every year. And in all 32 locker rooms, the team is supposed to come first.

It'd be stunning, then, if there weren't a sub-culture of bullying in the league. We just don't really know about it. 

Like the military or law enforcement, sports teams are built around an understood hierarchy, a pecking order based primarily on length of time served. Rookies in the NBA have had to carry their teammates' bags and make much-needed drugstore runs for a veteran for decades. Just ask Jalen Rose. In the NFL, star Cowboys wideout Dez Bryant was once a rookie who got stuck with an absurd $54,896 dinner tab in 2010.

Martin was subject to similar extortion, forking over $15,000 for an offensive linemen's trip to Las Vegas that he didn't even go on. Now reports are surfacing that Dolphins coaches may have asked Incognito to "toughen up" Martin after he missed voluntary offseason workouts (dictionary note to the league: voluntary = not required). And coach Joe Philbin laughed when he saw the penis haircuts inflicted on Martin and other rookies, according to the Times. The facts, and the parties involved, speak for themselves.

I'm sure the vast majority of the shenanigans that occur in NFL locker rooms are the "juvenile rituals" you mention, Hampton. But what about the one percent or even the 0.1 percent that are truly harassment and hate? Martin reportedly was being tormented for more than a year before finally snapping, and even then he didn't immediately share his story or go to team officials. He went home to his family, where he felt safe. The league's code of silence dictates that what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room. 

When asked this summer why he disliked the HBO all-access training camp series Hard Knocks, Bengals linebacker James Harrison revealed his own Us vs. Them mentality about the NFL:

I don't feel they deserve to be here. They did nothing to be here, other than want to be here. They didn't put no blood, sweat and tears into none of this. All these men in here, they did that. [The cameras] did nothing. No one deserves to see this, to come inside of this, unless you're a part of this.

Harrison's right, in a sense. We didn't suffer through two-a-days or chronically aching joints to enjoy American pro football. But when the public is kept out of the locker room, bullies like Richie Incognito stay in, with no harsh light shone on their ritual tormenting dressed up as puerility. That shouldn't be OK.

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Sports Roundtable

Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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