At some point and with astonishing speed, a fairly interesting, gossipy little locker room story about how two football teammates got along — or didn’t — metastasized uncontrollably and swallowed an NFL team and its season.
Two guys who play their sport’s most anonymous position, offensive line, for one of the league’s under-radar teams, the Dolphins, suddenly found themselves starring in a national soap opera that became less about what really happened than about the media’s coverage of it, and all of our overreaction to it.
The whole tale, couched in such profound gravity, has become utterly ridiculous, by which I mean ripe for ridicule. It is one of the most excessively scrutinized stories I have seen in more than 30 years of doing this.
A Dolphins assistant coach was overheard Wednesday to say, “This is the most overblown story.” And he is dead-on accurate, but what is right is also so politically incorrect that nobody connected with the Dolphins has the gumption to publicly say it.
To watch the opposite, overtly prudent response has become comical, with all the involved parties in a limbo contest, seeing who can bend over backward the most to appear the most politically correct.
Don’t get this wrong. I understand and appreciate why this story became big and must be handled with care. It involves a buzzword that hauls it beyond ESPN SportsCenter and into CNN and the Today show: Bullying. It involves the sociology of locker-room culture. Involves the legalities of work-place environment. Involves race.
So I get that the NFL — already reeling from issues of player health and safety, would scramble to cover its corporate butt by appointing an independent investigator.
I get why Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, finally reacting publicly to Bullygate Monday night, would use words like “appalled” as he appointed not one but two committees of his own.
I get why coach Joe Philbin, his team hijacked by the controversy, would expound gravely (and repeatedly) about how seriously he takes all of this.
I get why the bully, Richie Incognito, would dress himself up like a defendant given a fresh haircut for his court appearance, and try to explain himself in a one-on-one interview with Fox Sports.
And I get why the victim, Jonathan Martin, would ensconce himself with lawyers and legal strategists before finally agreeing to share his side of the soap.
But in everybody’s intent to make this bigger than it is, we have lost the ability to distill this to its essence. So let me help.
Miami’s locker room featured a bully waiting to happen in Incognito, a career-long dirty player and vulgar, hard-partying loudmouth. To be surprised Incognito is at the center of this is to be surprised by tomorrow’s sunrise.
Miami’s locker room also featured a shy, cerebral, “soft” younger player in Martin, a high draft pick who wasn’t very good and also didn’t make much effort to fit in — a bad combination.
So Incognito goes overboard with his bullying, including a profane text message to Martin that includes the N-word, a use Incognito says was in jest and not uncommon in locker-room parlance.
Incognito ends up being suspended by the team, Martin leaves under emotional duress, the media swarms, investigations ensue and here we are.
Only on this team could this have happened, not because Miami is different from other teams, but because only Miami had the combustible combination of a meathead boor like Incognito and a shy, ill-fitting underachiever like Martin.
May we be honest here?
I’m not saying Martin is a “baby,” as Mike Ditka called him. What I am saying is that Martin has shown evidence of having emotional issues that may not be ideally suited to a career in football.
I shake my head at general manager Jeff Ireland being in trouble for supposedly advising Martin’s agent to tell Martin to punch Incognito, to stand up for himself. We speak of a sport and locker-room environment filled with testosterone and vulgarity. Not just here; in football. Part of the brotherhood bond is to be tested, on and off the field.
From all that is known thus far, Incognito pushed things too far, but Martin perhaps did not push back far enough, if at all. Maybe both of those things are true.
Let me be clear:
Bullying is a terrible thing.
It is terrible when the victim is a young boy having his lunch money stolen. It is a criminal outrage when the victim is a preteen girl being cyber-bullied to the point of suicide. It is less terrible, quite frankly, when the victim is a grown, 320-pound man whose profession is one of violence and physicality.
Meanwhile, this story has become the stuff of lunacy.
Incognito being interviewed by mixed-martial arts trainer Jay Glazer Former Dolphins lineman Lydon Murtha writing a column on it for Sports Illustrated Ex-QB Sage Rosenfels slamming Ireland on Twitter Ireland getting inundated with hateful messages after a signed business card with his contact info materialized on Twitter.
And here was my favorite: Incognito saying the vulgar exchanges with Martin went both ways, citing that Martin had forward him a text that read, ‘I’ll kill your [blanking] family.’ Then Martin’s lawyer countering by revealing that those words were attached to an Internet meme, a photo of a grinning dog supposedly was saying that.
The Dolphins are being shamed nationally to great, almost preposterous excess.
This is not a cheating scandal, as when the Patriots secretly videotaped opponents’ hand signals, and this is not a moral scandal, as the Saints’ “Bountygate” was. Yet this franchise is being collectively tried as if it were.
This does not involve a tight end who has been indicted for a gangland-style murder, or a receiver implicated in a DUI death, or a quarterback who was running a deadly dog-fighting operation. Yet it is being covered as if it were.
Bullygate also has caused on overreaction to the travails of the team itself.
Inhale deeply, please. Exhale slowly.
Miami is 4-5 with seven games to play.
This is how many games Miami is off playoff pace:
Can we please see what the NFL investigation finds out before we shake fists, demand accountability and summon a guillotine? Can we see where this season ends up before we fire everybody and detonate everything? I mean, seriously.
The Dolphins have serious, tangible problems, such as bad blocking, an inconsistent running game, erratic tackling, continuing non-chemistry between Ryan Tannehill and Mike Wallace, and whether Tannehill’s “go, go-go” snap count is tipping off defenders.
The swarming media infatuation with Incognito/Martin should not continue to be among this team’s problems. Again: Enough!
Now maybe the NFL investigation will reveal shocking details that demand reconsideration here. But based on what is known now, let’s do this:
Let’s have the league and its teams enact a simple locker-room code based on respect. Players, do not use the N-word, even if you think it’s in a joking manner. Leave the juvenile hazing to the college frat houses. Don’t bully anybody. And quit demanding that rookies carry your shoulder pads and pay for your meals. It’s asinine.
Let’s have Miami waive both Incognito and Martin, because both those bridges are burning, and let’s have the NFL suspend Incognito for the rest of this season.
Then let’s do this:
Let’s move on.