Group dynamics are a tricky thing. Personally, I am curious about the dynamics that allowed for Richie Incognito of the Miami Dolphins to be able to harass and intimidate a teammate into walking away from the job. Among other terrible things, Incognito is accused of leaving voicemails for his teammate Jonathan Martin in which he, a White man, referred to Martin, who is Black, as a n*gger and threatened to attack his mother. Martin is now on leave from the team indefinitely and Incognito has been suspended pending an NFL investigation.
I use the term "harass" rather than "bully" to refer to Incognito because the latter minimizes his actions as well as the Dolphins' responsibility to protect their employees. We’re not talking about rookies carrying veterans’ pads and gym bags or being expected to foot a dinner bill so the stars of the team can eat for free. Incognito’s behavior points to a big cup of racial and psychosexual abuse---with a strong hint of extortion around the mouth of the glass.
This is unfortunate because young players like Martin are particularly vulnerable. Charged with establishing themselves as someone to be respected while still expecting a certain degree of junior treatment, those players need the team to set some boundaries for what is allowed and what isn’t. NFL locker rooms are not your average workplace; some hazing is to be expected. Due to that fact, teams have an additional responsibility to ensure that whatever rites-of-passage activities take place doesn’t cross the line into abuse.
But instead of drawing lines, it seems that the Dolphins were busy blurring them. The team put the fox in charge of the henhouse. They let the last person who should be in charge of anything essentially have run of a professional NFL locker room. According to reports, not only was Incognito presented with an official position on the team’s leadership council, he was also unofficially tasked with “toughening” Martin up. That doesn’t mean the Dolphins knew just how far he was taking things, but they certainly knew what kind of behavior he was capable of.
Incognito’s history of offenses is long and he’s been considered the dirtiest player in the NFL by his peers for many years. Before being drafted, he spent time in rehab for his anger issues and has spoken candidly about living life on the edge. This is a man who recently thought it was just fine to steal a teammate’s credit card to purchase a jet ski and then go on the radio to brag about it. Mind you, there was nary a peep from the Dolphins on his admission. They didn’t even care enough to pretend they had a problem with it.
When a player has this kind of history, and is still engaging in the same kind of behavior, he’s the last person who should be given influence over rookies. That’s why I bristled when I heard that some anonymous players and personnel folks suggested that Martin should have handled this situation "man-to-man." When one player holds more influence with teammates and coaches, things aren’t quite that simple. Further, when dealing with an unpredictable bully with a history of violent behavior, I find it odd to ask another man to try to beat him at his own game.
I understand that masculinity is a complicated concept---particularly as it pertains to athletes. And, quite frankly, there will always be some guys who aren’t emotionally equipped for professional sports. However, that cuts both ways. And while Martin may not, in fact, be mentally able to cope successfully in a tough NFL locker room—that remains to be seen. But Incognito has already proven time and time again that he isn’t.
Jessica Danielle covers sports with wit and ardor at Playerperspective.com.