How the NFL Abets Bullies Like Richie Incognito

The stadium scene.
Nov. 4 2013 4:19 PM

NFL Bullies

Could the Dolphins’ suspension of Richie Incognito change the culture of pro football?

Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin
The Dolphins' Richie Incognito (L) has been accused of bullying teammate Jonathan Martin. The team initially dismissed “the notion of bullying” as “based on speculation.”

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Getty

Richie Incognito has been a force of destruction in the NFL for years. Not the football-blessed, blocking-and-tackling kind of destruction—the raging, you-would’ve-been-fired-500-times-if-you-weren’t-a-football-player kind. This is a player who has been practically begging for the authorities to come down on him hard. In his career with the Rams, Bills, and Dolphins, Incognito has drawn an enormous number of fines and penalties for his on-field behavior, and won the wrong kind of acclamation from his peers as the league’s dirtiest player. Instead of punishing him, the NFL let him keep playing and messing with other people—officials, fans, opposing teams. When one team dropped him, another picked him up. His current employer, the Dolphins, has even traded on his hell-raising persona, dressing him up as a croquet player in a cheeky video on appropriate fan behavior.

Now, the offensive lineman has been suspended for conduct detrimental to his team. The surprising reason: He’s been accused of bullying a teammate. At more than 300 pounds, Jonathan Martin doesn’t seem like a victim out of central casting. Indeed, when reports surfaced over the weekend, with pretty compelling examples of how Incognito had poisoned the Dolphins’ locker room, the team’s first response was to dismiss “the notion of bullying” as “based on speculation.”

On Sunday, the team quickly reversed its position, perhaps due to the unveiling of threatening, racial-slur-laden text messages and voice mails sent from Incognito to Martin. The speedy shift is a testament to the awfulness of Incognito’s alleged deeds and to the power of the word bullying in this cultural moment. This episode represents a test of NFL culture. After years of rising awareness about the harm bullying does kids, is football ready to appreciate the harm of letting an adult bully run rampant? Will the NFL quit pretending that it’s OK to humor a poisonous misanthrope like Incognito as long as he performs on the field?

Advertisement

In the first press reports, Martin sounded like the problem, at least from football’s point of view. ESPN.com, like the Dolphins organization, initially downplayed the issue by saying he’d been the “subject of some ribbing” and was receiving professional assistance for emotional issues. The implication was that if Martin couldn’t hack it in the Dophins locker room, he was the one who needed help.

But as more details have emerged, the narrative has shifted. In addition to those horrible voice mails and texts, it’s been revealed that teammates called Martin “Big Weirdo,” that they stood up when he tried to sit with them at lunch, and that Martin felt pressured to pay $15,000 towards the offensive line’s trip to Las Vegas, an outing he didn’t even attend. CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora reported that “Incognito has had to be reprimanded in the past for his actions toward team employees. … It is not uncommon for him to intentionally walk into people and make others feel uncomfortable.” In a clip from HBO’s documentary series Hard Knocks, you can see Incognito’s bullying behavior for yourself. The offensive lineman steals rookie Michael Egnew’s iPad and posts demeaning messages on his Facebook account—a “prank” that’s very jerky and not particularly funny.

The power dynamic here is obvious. Incognito, the long-tenured player, has license to haze his teammate because he’s a callow newcomer. In every NFL locker room, older players take advantage of younger ones, sticking them with huge dinner bills and making them carry the veterans’ pads. This behavior is sanctioned—or at the very least not at all discouraged—by the league and by teams, and it gets passed on from generation to generation. Guys who’ve been bullied as rookies turn around and bully the next group. "I felt like those are the things you have to do in order to be a part of the team,” the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant said when, as a rookie, he was hit with a mindboggling $54,896 dinner tab. “The older guys helped me understand that everybody goes through it. It happened. It's no big deal. Everything's fine. Everybody is having fun. That's the great thing about it." Yes, sounds great, Dez!

The line between light-hearted ribbing and malicious attacks is often fuzzy. Based on the reports we’ve been seeing about the Dolphins’ locker room, and the domineering role Incognito played inside it, there’s no fuzziness here.

Incognito, it seems, has spent his life training for the role of locker-room villain. It would take too long to recount all of his alleged on-field and off-field misdeeds, but here’s a brief sketch. As an undergrad at Nebraska he was ejected from a game for fighting and was spotted spitting on another player. (Years later, an NFL player would also accuse Incognito of spitting in his face.) Off the field, he was found guilty of a misdemeanor assault charge, and eventually left the Nebraska team after being indefinitely suspended for violations of team rules. With his first NFL team, the Rams, he was once fined $25,000 for berating an official. The Rams cut him in 2009 when he head-butted two opponents in the same game, drawing two 15-yard penalties and $50,000 in fines. In recent years, the Texans’ Antonio Smith accused Incognito of trying to break his ankle, then became so incensed at the Dolphins player this preseason that he ripped Incognito’s helmet off and swung it at him. And this August, Incognito was reported to have punched a security guard, though he was never charged or arrested.

NFL.com recently did a big, splashy feature, showcasing Incognito as a guy who’d conquered his inner demons. In the piece, by Jeff Darlington, he confessed to “partying every night” when he was with the Rams, drinking and doing drugs. Darlington wrote Incognito was now taking the medication Paxil, and that he’d taken up meditation. He also noted that Incognito was bullied as a child due to his large size, and quoted Incognito’s father’s advice to his son: "You don't take no s--- from anyone. If you let anyone give you s--- now, you're going to take s--- your entire life."

Richie Incognito is a cautionary tale. He has problems with anger, he was bullied himself, and he was urged to fight by those closest to him. (When it comes to modeling appropriate behavior, Incognito’s dad does not seem to be doing a great job. On Monday morning, Deadspin presented compelling evidence that Richie Incognito Sr. was writing horrible, anonymous attacks on Jonathan Martin on online message boards.) And though there were a few bumps along the way, his behavior has mostly been encouraged and rewarded with fame and big-money contracts. The Rams only cut Incognito after his head-butts hurt them on the field, costing the team two 15-yard penalties. Otherwise, they seemed willing to keep on excusing his lapses of judgment, saying “he understands that it can’t happen again.”

The NFL, it seems, does a much better job providing a supportive, nurturing environment for someone like Richie Incognito than it does for players like Jonathan Martin. Suspending Incognito for his locker-room bullying could stop that cycle. It could also lead to a change in how the NFL deals with people like Incognito, who probably need counseling more than they do coaching, and with victims like Martin. If Martin gets the NFL and his team’s support for talking honestly about the culture of the Dolphins’ locker room, that would go a long way toward airing the damage teams can do when they turn on one of their own. It was amazing on Sunday to see ex-players like Ray Lewis and Shannon Sharpe talk seriously about the problem of interpersonal team dynamics, and when locker-room bullying can go too far. Hopefully it won’t just be a one-day conversation.

And if the NFL can switch from enabling its Incognitos to helping its Martins, the latter player could become a modern-day Rosey Grier. Back in the 1970s, Grier—an all-pro defensive lineman—performed the song “It’s Alright to Cry” on the album Free To Be You and Me. In the cities and towns where football is king, an NFL player copping to human vulnerability can truly make it easier for kids to do the same thing.

Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.