Let me start by saying that the Miami Dolphins’ guard Richie Incognito should feel horribly guilty in his role regarding the pending-resignation of fellow offensive lineman and teammate Jonathan Martin. Evidence has come forward regarding Incognito’s harassment toward Martin, proving that the nine-year NFL veteran made vulgar, racist threats to the second-year pro. I don’t care what your line of work is; nobody deserves to put themselves in a hostile work environment where they feel their safety is in jeopardy. Racism and bigotry go beyond the boundaries of safety and are as open to condemnation as physical abuse and harassment. And of course nobody should be forced by others to attend “team meetings” at strip clubs and pay tabs that are not their own.
But I propose that we put the most stock into the testimony of the teammates, and consider NFL locker room culture for what it is. Many of the most respected veterans on the Dolphins side with Incognito and want his suspension lifted. According to NFL Hall-of-Famer Cris Carter’s conversations with wide receiver Mike Wallace and center Mike Pouncey, Incognito is “loved” and “respected” by all his teammates. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill described Incognito as a “big brother” to Martin and “the best friend he had on the team.”
And then one day, Martin cracked. After a lunchroom prank by Incognito, completely commonplace between teammates throughout the history of the NFL, Martin decided he no longer wanted to be the scrub and that he had enough. However, not once did he talk to Incognito or anyone else to express his frustration. He surprised his teammates, coaches and the league by quitting the team right before a big game and filing a formal complaint with the league.
By doing this, Martin committed multiple cardinal sins against his teammates, the ones who stand the most to lose from locker room dysfunction. He went to the media and exposed information regarding team chemistry without consulting any teammates. And HE QUIT AN NFL TEAM MID-SEASON, just because he got his feelings hurt. Abandoning your teammates for any reason within your control is far worse to a teammate than some expletive language and idle, empty threats. This behavior is despicable when acted out with sincerity and real malicious intent. But in the NFL, this kind of behavior between teammates is meant to build the mental toughness that is required in such a violent, crude, high-pressure and high-stakes job.
An NFL field is a violent place by nature. Imagine 11 300-pound men trying their best to knock you out and injure you continuously for three hours. Then imagine every vile slur regarding you and your mother being spit at you while you try to counter this force. There is a reason that NFL rhetoric most resembles that of military personnel.
I’m not proposing that Incognito had the right to do what he did. I’m proposing that Martin, as a fully-grown adult and an NFL player, should have a thick enough skin to stand up to Incognito and fight his battles himself. Martin is actually 10 pounds heavier than Incognito, so he has nothing to worry about as far as physical intimidation. Martin is also an educated man, a Stanford graduate who should be able to understand the context and disregard what would be considered bullying in any other line of work.
Martin’s reaction could have been reflective of deeper-seeded issues. He has struggled on the field this year and lost his job as starting left tackle. If Martin has personal demons to battle before he is ready to play football again, he should take the time to sort those out and help himself get healthy. But he did not need to throw his best friend and teammate under the bus. Instead of being the bigger man and dealing with Incognito in a mature, adult manner, Martin left his team in shambles and now faces an uphill battle towards acceptance in any NFL locker room.
A version of this article appeared on page 9 of November 14, 2013’s print edition of The Daily Nexus
Art by Vicky Kohatsu of The Daily Nexus