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Tuesday, November 05, 2013

On Richie Incognito, the Dolphins, NFL Culture
A lot has been said and written about what happened in Miami, and I'd like to offer my views:

1.  That everyone does it does not make it right.  The culture of sticking rookies with bills seemingly has gone too far in the NFL.  Witness Dez Bryant's getting stuck with a $55,000 restaurant bill a few  years ago in Dallas, and contrast that to ESPN's "30 for 30" documentary called "Broke" which chronicled how many pro athletes have gone broke.  It's one thing to ask rookies to bring donuts to the morning meeting and make that a ritual.  It's another to make them pay huge bucks.  Sorry, but none of us was raised that way.  In fact, we expect Dad to pick up the check, not the kids.  It's nice when the kids offer, but the thing is, in the NFL, it would be nicer if the the veterans resisted temptation because they can force their will on others and instead would lead a little more.  No, I'm not talking about coddling rookies in an every competitive league, but harrassing them into paying five figures for something?  That just doesn't seem right.

2.  Mike Greenberg was wrong when he said things that go on in Corporate America as to hazing are worse.  Sure, I"ve had to do crafts and make food at team-building events, but I've never asked anyone on my team to pay for anything, and I've not stuck someone with the bill, humiliated them, etc.  If things along the lines of what goes on in an NFL locker room were to go on at most, if not all, corporations, the people who perpetrate them will get written up and possibly fired.  Period.  Defending what goes on in NFL locker rooms because it's the NFL and it's always happened is Greenberg's way of avoiding an unnecessary (in his mind) fight with his partner, Mike Golic, and I'm not so sure that Golic would have wanted to be stuck with the bill that Dez Bryant got stuck with (then again, Golic wasn't a first-round pick, so it probably wouldn't have happened).

3.  The NFL hosts a collision sport, so I don't expect its players to be gentle all the time.  True, they're not running a sensitivity business, but they are running a team.  So, you aren't going to get "here, have a flower" hippies blocking for running backs," you're going to get guys who like to hit people hard.  Which means, perhaps, that it's harder for them to turn their manners off and on the way a greeter at a hotel might.  I get all that.  But I also believe that teams excel where the veterans know where to draw the line, know the difference between a rite of passage and hazing, know how to make key rookies feel part of the team quickly so that the team can make the playoffs and then advance as far as it can.  What has gone on in Miami has affected not only the offensive line play, but also the play of the team.

4.  That more Dolphins would welcome Incognito back than Jonathan Martin, the player he allegedly harrassed, says something about NFL culture and the Dolphins culture.  And it's not good.  We're a hypocritical society -- we sue, we publicly excoriate people who behave badly, we accuse corporations and leaders of all sorts of things, but in this case we'll want the aggressive Incognito (who has quite a history) back over Martin, who is the victim here?  What does that say?  It might say that Martin is out of position, might have been overrated or doesn't belong on the team.  Or it might say that NFL players would prefer a teammate who is a little out there because, well, being a nice guy/altar boy/Stanford student isn't critical to winning and being a badass is.  And Roger Goodell is worried (to a degree) about head injuries.  What about head cases?

5.  Is Incognito's career over?  Many have drawn that conclusion, but I am not sure that it's the case.  Sure, he seemingly has done some bad things, but so have many professional athletes.  Yes, it looks like this is bullying, and, yes, it looks like this is racial harassment.  Contrast this incident to Riley Cooper's idiocy with security guards at Lincoln Financial Field during a Kenny Chesney concert.  The video of his using a bad racial slur went viral, but the team got in front of it, Cooper apologize quickly, and the team's leader, Michael Vick, demonstrated great class, cool and leadership by forgiving Cooper and helping heal the situation fast.  This Miami incident is a little more complicated, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the Dolphins need to fire Incognito.  For example, if Martin forgives him and tells the team he doesn't want that remedy, the Dolphins might not have their hands forced unless they believe that Incognito needs to go so that they can build a better culture.  Then again, if they fire Incognito, they have to figure out how to integrate Martin back into the team.  My sense is that the locker room might not be nice to him, and that, in and of itself, could spark retaliation in many forms, including the legally actionable. 

6.  Should we rush to an overall remedy for the league on this type of behavior?  I'm a big critic of drawing up policies based on single data points.  I am concerned about sticking rookies with big bills, because I don't think that's what leaders should do.  Bring the donuts, bring the barbecue before the team flight, fine, but $15,000 for a Vegas trip or a $55,000 dinner?  Sorry, even for millionaires, that's a bit much.  That said, lots of things go on around the country that we haven't made rules or legislated for, and this is the first time in a while that this type of thing has come up in the NFL context.  Which means that for right now this is the Dolphins' problem, and not necessarily the league's.  And it's a messy problem at that.

7.  What what I do if I were the Dolphins?  I'd have a lot of individual meetings, a lot of meetings with leaders, meetings with Incognito and his agent, meetings with Martin and his agent, and try as best I could to let the past be in the past, to get apologies, to heal and to win football games.  That said, a lot has happened, and this may not be possible given the past history.  But there is a cautionary tale here, one that I wondered about back in 2004 about alleged leaders of teams.  Back then, the Eagles signed Terrell Owens to play wide receiver, and he played great.  But he was moody and acted out publicly, and conflicted with the leader of the offense, Donovan McNabb.  QBs can be sensitive people, and McNabb wasn't the type to handle this type of conflict without help.  And while people now revere Brian Dawkins and Jeremiah Trotter, I don't think they did anything to settle the situation becuase they were friends with both.  That proved to be a mistake, no matter how close the Eagles got to a Super Bowl title in 2004, because the team imploded the following year.  Anyone who says, "well, he's an issue, but I seem to get along with him," might be bailing on a toxicity that could bury a team's chances.  I thought that happened in '05 with the Eagles, where some stern talk from Dawkins and or Trotter to Owens might have told T.O. to grow up.  The same could have happened in Miami, where, apparently, too many were afraid of Incognito or didn't want to get involved.  Even if people are "expected to take it," some can't, Jonathan Martin needed help, and, seemingly, others were more content to let the team implode than to say, "Hey, Richie, Jonathan's a different breed of cat, ease up a bit.  He's making the plays, but he's different, so be cool to it."  That comment might have provoked a conversation that might have led at least to an understanding.  Instead, the Dolphins have a mess on their hands, and it would be interesting to see if any player wishes he had spoken up, or if they are blaming Martin for being oversensitive in a league where to show weakness is to risk ostracism and unemployment.

The NFL shouldn't be rash here.  Careers are short, the pressure is great, and the culture is odd.  That's part of the lure, but there is a difference between ribbing and initiating on the one hand and hazing and bullying on the other.  It looks like a line got crossed here, and that's been bad for all involved.


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