Dolphins scandal: Richie and the ‘Big Weirdo’

ho / ho

Here’s my question about the Dolphins’ imbroglio: Where were the adults in the locker room? Or in the Dolphins’ management offices?

Why didn’t someone in a position of authority, a coach or teammate, take Richie Incognito aside after an especially egregious hazing episode and say, “Hey, dude, dial it back with Jonathan Martin. You’re way over the line.”

Not only was Incognito never taken aside, it’s likely an assistant Dolphins coach at some point encouraged Incognito to “toughen up” Martin, a brainy Stanford graduate who majored in classics — Greek literature and philosophy. He is an educated man, the first member of his family in four generations not to attend Harvard. Jonathan Martin is the antithesis of the stereotypical dumb jock.

Maybe that was the problem. Maybe the other players who attended, but often didn’t graduate, from land-grant universities — Incognito failed at Nebraska and Oregon — resented a Stanford grad with a high IQ who could also play pro football. Maybe they thought they’d bring him down a peg, that he was too smart for his own good and also too sensitive. They called him “big weirdo.” He proudly called himself a nerd. Preferred classical music to rap. Read real books. Marched to his own drummer. Went along with the rookie hazing well into his sophomore year — until he no longer could and walked away..

It has become a cause celebre for the anti-bullying caucus and a huge embarrassment for the Dolphins. Now, owner Steve Ross (“appalled”) has appointed a committee to reform the team’s locker-room culture while the NFL has hired a crackerjack lawyer, Ted Wells, to investigate. I don’t expect his inquiry to drag on too long because this is one more black mark on a multibillion-dollar brand — the NFL. So someone will pay. Perhaps coach Joe Philbin or, more likely, general manager Jeff Ireland. After all, they were supposed to be the adults in the room. Ireland’s reported advice for Martin? Punch out Incognito. There you go, just how mature adults settle disputes.

I’m privileged to know Don Shula, who even now can make people tremble when he sticks out that lantern jaw. Former Dolphins players have told me that in his heyday even the toughest Dolphins trembled, too, and changed their ways when “Coach” glared at them and stuck out his jaw. I don’t think the Incognito/Martin flap would have occurred under Shula’s watch.

My sympathy in this brouhaha is with Jonathan Martin. Yes, it’s incongruous to think of a 315-pound man as being bullied, but he certainly can be harassed to the point of becoming emotionally unhinged. It looks like Martin tried to fit into the Dolphins’ locker-room culture — probably not so different from other pro football locker rooms — but discovered he couldn’t. So he left out of self-preservation. I’ve found myself in untenable situations a couple of times in my professional and personal life and did the same thing. There is no shame to it.

On other occasions we all know you have to tough it out. I recall a job at a steel plant in St. Louis during my college years where I was the lone white guy in a group of six tough black guys. Most of them resented me because I was white, got paid the same as they did and was going to leave to return to school at summer’s end. They made my life hell for three months, But I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of quitting or backing down. I didn’t.

Every profession creates its own culture with its own rules and requirements for initiation. Journalism is no exception. I vividly recall the embarrassment at being called out as a young reporter for a spelling error in copy I submitted. I had made the unpardonable mistake of writing “imminent domain” instead of “eminent domain.” When the managing editor of the mighty Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune saw my error, he gleefully yelled out to a crowded newsroom, “We’ve got a reporter here who thinks eminent domain is something that’s going to happen soon.” And then he threw the copy down on my desk. I was humiliated. But I also learned to consult a dictionary (this was long before spell check) before submitting my copy. I still do.

That was humiliating, but not harmful. Leaving racist rants on someone’s voicemail, extorting $15,000 for a vacation, making drunken threats, beating up a doorman at a nightclub, sexually harassing a woman at a golf tournament — that’s harmful. Boorish. Offensive. Unacceptable. Incognito told Fox Sports he’s not a racist nor a “meat-head.” Don’t know about the former, but the answer to the latter is obvious.

Despite all the tut-tutting, I think we’re enjoying this spectacle. In his excellent history of Rome, art historian Robert Hughes says that at the height of its decadence the Romans were provided with three public spectacles a week. Let’s see, we have Sunday afternoon football, Sunday night football, Monday night football and now Thursday night football. Those Romans had nothing on us. Go Gladiators!

Read more Michael Putney stories from the Miami Herald

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