IN MY OPINION

Greg Cote: Miami Dolphins bullying scandal puts spotlight on troubling locker room ‘culture’

 
WEB VOTE Do you think Richie Incognito will ever play in the NFL again?

gcote@MiamiHerald.com

The controversy that has mushroomed and swarmed and swallowed the Miami Dolphins franchise and its team’s season has become a real life soap opera making mere football games seem incidental.

This thing is an unholy mess wherever you turn.

The bully – suspended guard Richie Incognito – comes off as a macho clown whose maturity got stuck in middle school or (benefit of doubt) high school. It is all but certain he’ll never play for Miami again and good riddance. Let him be some other city’s problem. Better yet, let him be a former NFL lineman.

The victim, the away-on-personal-leave tackle Jonathan Martin, unfortunately and unfairly gets stigmatized now as soft or weak or a snitch, all things tough to overcome for a professional athlete, and all because he’d had enough and wouldn’t play along with the curdled culture of the locker room. I’d be surprised if he plays for the team again.

And the coach, beleaguered Joe Philbin, comes off as the non-leader who either did nothing about what was going on or was oblivious to it, neither option speaking well of him. If his 4-4 team does not make the playoffs to save him, I think that and this bullying scandal together will see Philbin fired.

“I’m in charge of the workplace atmosphere,” Philbin acknowledged Monday, addressing a playoff-sized media crowd at least five times bigger what a normal week would have drawn.

The absence of leadership and discipline that allowed this to foment has created a national embarrassment for the franchise, a stain on the brand. The four-game losing streak was just football stuff. This in many ways is bigger. This has turned the Dolphins into a punchline or a case worthy of sociological examination.

This has turned the Dolphins into an episode of Dr. Phil.

Give Dolphins defensive star Cam Wake credit for the line of the day Monday. He sacked it. He’d been at his Davie training-camp lockerstall engulfed by dozens of media members, dwarfed by camera men on ladders and jabbing boom mikes, being asked not about football at all but about bullying, nonstop.

Finally a team publicist rescued him by announcing question-time had ended.

As the crowd unknotted itself, Wake said to everyone, to no one:

“Nobody cares about Tampa, huh!?”

Perfect.

Miami plays at Tampa Bay next, and nobody cared. This was Wake’s first media availability since his overtime sack for a safety heroically beat Cincinnati on Thursday night, and nobody cared.

Now the Today show is talking about the Dolphins. But they’re not talking about football.

DISTURBING VOICEMAILS

Miami was right to suspend Incognito indefinitely late Sunday, as much as his departure hurts the team moving forward at one of its most needy positions. The suspension was in keeping with Philbin’s scrambling, after-the-fact pledge that the club won’t tolerate behavior that violates “a culture of respect for one another.”

If everything we’ve heard is true, suspension isn’t enough. Incognito should be waived, NFL nice-speak for fired.

Martin says Incognito left him “threatening and racially charged” text messages and voicemails, with one that has become public using the N-word and f-bombs and even threatening Martin’s mother. There were allusions to sexual orientation. Martin says he also was threatened and pressured by Incognito into paying $15,000 for Incognito and a few teammates to party in Las Vegas last summer.

There is a word for threatening and pressuring someone to give you money against their wishes.

Extortion.

Disturbingly, apparently Dolphins veterans routinely make rookies and young players pick up the tab; it has become a part of the Dolphins locker room “culture.”

Recently Incognito had taped a sign in his lockerstall that read, “There are two things Richie Incognito does not like: Taxes and rookies.” Evidently a third thing Incognito did not like was treating Martin as a human being.

Martin had finally had enough and abruptly left the team after an Incognito-instigated lunchroom prank in which teammates rose as one and left the table as Martin sat down – a juvenile, middle-school tease if ever there was one.

Profiles written on Incognito over the years fill in a portrait that makes this latest episode seem less surprising. His family moved when Richie was in 6th grade and he was the new, chubby kid at school. He got picked on. His macho father instructed him to fight back. He did. He became the clichè embodiment of the dime-store psychology that most bullies were themselves bullied.

Warning signs glowed and pulsed in college when Incognito was suspended by Nebraska, transferred, and then got released by Oregon.

Incognito turned into an NFL loose cannon, violent and prone to excessive penalties. He has been named the league’s dirtiest player in a poll of colleagues. He has attended classes for anger-management and for substance abuse.

He once told NFL.com of his past behavior: “I mean, we’d have practice the next morning and I’m out until all hours of the night, running the town. Drinking. Doing drugs. I was doing everything that a professional athlete should not be doing.”

Incognito wore out his welcome in St. Louis after twice head-butting opposing players in a game and then arguing on the sideline with then-coach Steve Spagnuolo.

He seemed to have turned things around in Miami (well, other than the penalties), even winning the team’s “good guy award” last season for cooperation with the media. Philbin trusted him as one of six players on the team’s “leadership council.”

So if you’re wondering where the team leaders were in preventing this bullying matter to metastasize, they were among those DOING this.

A SILVER LINING?

There is a positive aspect to this, though, and it is that some good can come of it, from two angles.

First, the attention shines a whole new national light on bullying, a cowardly, terrible thing that has led to suicides. It informs us that bullying is not just a schoolyard problem among kids. It can happen in the workplace, in neighborhoods, in cyberspace. The victim can even be a 6-5, 312-pound pro football player.

Second, maybe this will be the needed impetus to change the entire modus operandi of how athletes relate to each other in a team setting, in all sports, on all levels. There should be no more hazing rituals, no more treating rookies like second-class citizens in the misguided name of “team building.”

The resistance to this change will be stubborn.

I heard it Monday in the locker room of the team’s Davie headquarters. I heard support for Incognito. I did not much sympathy for Martin. I heard a lot of defending of the football and locker room culture – a mind-set that says the bully wasn’t wrong, the victim was just weak.

“I don’t feel like any hazing or anything like that was going on,” receiver Mike Wallace said. “It’s normal in football. People doing what they do on a normal basis. I don’t feel like anybody was being bullied or hazed. It’s what football teams do, like playing with your brothers. It’s just part of the game of football.”

On Incognito: “I don’t feel like he was out of hand,” Wallace said. “I wish he was here right now.”

This is Wallace’s first season here. Wake has been here longer, one of the team leaders Miami evidently lacks.

Wake had his chance to defend Martin and to excoriate Incognito’s behavior. Instead he tried to explain the football/locker room culture of veterans riding rookies and young players such as Martin, who was in his second season.

“Rite of passage,” Wake described it. “You have to pay your dues to get certain privileges. Everybody I know has done it. Football is the best fraternity I can think of.”

Players who are protecting that culture don’t get what the league now investigating the Miami situation hopefully will.

This puts bullying on the NFL radar, at least. It forces the league to understand that it must be worried about more than just the concussion-related safety of its players or their arrests for stuff like DUIs or domestic abuse.

There must be a new, enforceable demand, from both teams and the league, that players have a right to enjoy a workplace atmosphere free from prejudice, hostility, coercion, bullying or any other mental or physical mistreatment.

Sometimes we ponder how NFL teams or sports in general might accept openly gay players. What’s been going on with the Dolphins does not encourage a very favorable answer. That Martin was evidently targeted and picked on for his perceived softness reminds us that the macho locker room hardly leads the league in tolerance or understanding. Perceived weakness is preyed upon.

The Dolphins will get past this bullying episode.

The greater, lasting good is the awareness that this a problem without boundaries, and that it can even happen in the NFL.

Read more Greg Cote stories from the Miami Herald

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