Players in the National Football League make a living in a workplace unlike any other. They tackle and block in practice — encounters that can boil over into fistfights — then shower together as if nothing happened.
On game days, they perform their job duties with orthopedists, neurologists and ambulances ready to intervene. They evaluate their success or failure while standing half-naked in the glare of TV cameras.
Inside the locker room, they play cards and needle colleagues with profane language banned at office water coolers. When they clock out, changing from gladiator gear to flip-flops under the nameplate on their cubicle, they exit an insular world where the rules of interaction are much different than those in civil society.
Behavior boundaries are so elastic, in fact, that Miami Dolphins players don’t expect outsiders to understand why they are defending offensive lineman Richie Incognito, who was suspended for sending insulting, threatening and racist messages to teammate Jonathan Martin, while offering no sympathy for Martin, who left the team Oct. 28 under emotional duress.
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But the Dolphins and the NFL are being criticized for allowing a machismo culture to thrive to the point where bullying and hateful language were accepted under the guise of brotherhood building.
Incognito, 30, who is white and was once voted the league’s “Dirtiest Player” by his NFL peers, was considered an “honorary black man” by teammates who were amused and not offended by his use of a racial slur, but Martin, 24, who is black, attended an exclusive prep school and Stanford, and is the son of Harvard-educated lawyers, was considered soft and called a “half-n----- piece of s---” by Incognito.
Conduct in the Incognito/Martin imbroglio is being investigated by Ted Wells, a New York attorney appointed by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, even as the Dolphins try to regroup in the midst of a controversy that has cost the team two starters, cast aspersions on franchise leadership and inflamed a national nerve.
Harry Edwards, a leader of the civil rights movement and consultant for the San Francisco 49ers since 1985, said the extremes of a hypercompetitive environment where “guys are dependent on each other to avoid winding up in a wheelchair” do not excuse the use of racist or homophobic epithets.
“You’re looking at a group of young men who do not understand their own history or the path by which they arrived to enjoy the opportunities they possess,” Edwards said. “Dropping N-bombs on each other or granting license to some member of another group to say that word is not a generational thing. It’s an ignorance thing.”
Edwards, professor emeritus at the University of California who has also worked with the Golden State Warriors and inside Major League Baseball clubhouses, said the NFL must find a way to resolve the Dolphins crisis in the wake of the concussion issue and New Orleans’ “Bountygate” if it wants to maintain its status as America’s favorite sport.
“Black parents are saying, ‘If a white man has latitude to demean a black man in a throwback to Gone With the Wind, and Tony Dorsett is losing his mind, and the league has a team nickname [Redskins] so revolting even its home city has rejected it, maybe I don’t want my son playing football,’ ” he said. “Athletes may be defending each other but what many perceive as a dysfunctional and borderline barbaric culture is not playing well with the general public.”
Joaquin Gonzalez is among those who unapologetically defend Incognito while blaming Martin for being oversensitive to the manly mores of a cutthroat environment where military vernacular is often employed. Gonzalez, 34, is a Cuban-American who was an offensive lineman at Miami Columbus High, the University of Miami, the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts. He said Incognito, an acquaintance, is no bigot but rather a player trying to fit in with black teammates.
When Gonzalez first arrived at UM, his nickname was “Mexico.” It was changed to “Spic” when he explained to his teammates that his parents immigrated from Cuba.
“I embraced my nickname and my teammates did not use it to imply I was a lower form of human,” he said.
The N-word was commonplace, he said.
“It’s not n----r; it’s n---a, and it doesn’t have a negative connotation; it’s a term of endearment,” he said. “Black guys used it, some white guys could use it. You would talk about guys’ mothers, sisters, dogs. No holds barred. You caught the hot potato and passed it on. You can’t show you are hurt or you’ll get ridden.”
Gonzalez, chief marketing officer for Tire Group International, said Incognito is being unfairly vilified. Martin, he said, should have settled any conflicts in-house, echoing the omerta no-snitch code cited by many NFL players. In a violent game, there is no crying game.
“To quote a few of my coaches, you’ll find sympathy in the dictionary between the words sh-- and syphilis,” Gonzalez said. “Football is not the real world. Jonathan Martin couldn’t hack it. Go play golf. People in the NFL are playing for their lives.”
Martin, nicknamed “Big Weirdo,” was not only verbally abused with “daily vulgar comments,” but the victim of a “malicious physical attack” by a teammate, according to his lawyer, David Cornwell. Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland told Martin’s agent after Martin left that Martin should have resolved the problem with physical retaliation, according to ProFootballTalk.
But Martin might have felt trapped in a no-win situation. His discomfort with racial slurs might have been deeply embedded during his upbringing, said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
Lapchick himself was affected as a youth by the “n----- lover” hate calls his father, Joe, received as coach of the New York Knicks when he signed the first black player — Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton — to an NBA contract in 1950. Lapchick also saw his father hung in effigy across the street from his house. In 1978, as a leader of the U.S. anti-apartheid movement against the South African government, Lapchick was attacked by three white men who used scissors to carve the N-word on his stomach (they misspelled it). He was hospitalized for three days.
“What my father went through was a major influence on my values and choices,” Lapchick said. “In the Dolphins case, someone felt intimidated enough to leave the game he worked at his entire life to reach the NFL level. Bullying can be so devastating that people commit suicide to escape it.”
Although the locker room is often celebrated as a model of harmony it is not immune from ugly power games, said Lapchick, who grades diversity in sport with his annual Racial and Gender Report Cards.
“I think sport is better than society, yet the locker room evades scrutiny precisely because athletes keep what goes on inside to themselves,” he said.
The Dolphins’ reaction to Incognito’s use of the N-word contrasts with that of the Philadelphia Eagles’ reaction to receiver Riley Cooper’s utterance of it in July when he was prevented from going backstage at a concert by a black security guard.
“I will jump that fence and fight every n----- here, bro,” said Cooper, who later apologized and admitted he was drunk.
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said he was “shocked and appalled,” fined Cooper and sent him to sensitivity counseling. Teammate Cary Williams, citing his grandmother and great-grandmother, said: “There’s no place for that word … off anybody’s tongue.”
Luther Campbell called Dolphins players’ defense of Incognito “a copout, an excuse and a spin job.”
Campbell learned about the power of language when he was a rap star and the sexually explicit lyrics of his record As Nasty as They Wanna Be were at the center of a free-speech debate, which he won in a 1992 Supreme Court case. That was entertainment, a ribald parody, he said.
But as coach of youth league and high school players, he does not tolerate cursing or use of the N-word.
“There is nothing cool about using a word that disrespects your mother, your community, your friends and yourself,” said Campbell, founder of the Liberty City Optimist League. “The Dolphins weren’t performing a comedy club routine. In the context of calling a teammate on the phone and using that word — that’s hardcore. Honorary black guy? I don’t believe it. It sounds like a bunch of gutless black men, which was a culture shock for Martin, and which explains why that team is so sorry.”
It gets worse
More unflattering stories about Incognito’s behavior have emerged, such as an Aventura police complaint from a female volunteer at a Dolphins golf outing who said he poked at her private parts and knocked sunglasses off her head with a golf club, and a National Football Post report that he held offensive line meetings at a strip club and fined players who did not attend. Incognito was dismissed from the Nebraska team at the start of his senior year and from the St. Louis Rams three-quarters of the way through the 2009 season. The Dolphins were not planning to re-sign him after 2013.
Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill said the boisterous Incognito treated Martin like a “little brother” and receiver Brian Hartline said Martin and others laughed about the antagonistic voicemail. But Martin, a classics major at Stanford, might have thought that befriending Incognito and playing along was unsustainable when the hijinks turned into harassment, said a former Incognito teammate who was bullied by Incognito at Nebraska.
“Richie had trouble knowing when not to cross the line,” said Jack Limbaugh, who was once blindsided by Incognito during practice and chose to walk off the field rather than fight Incognito. “A core group has to recognize the severity of his actions, stand up and say, ‘This isn’t funny, it’s hurtful, and it’s damaging team chemistry.’ ”
The Dolphins’ Bryant McKinnie said race has not been an issue on any of the NFL teams he has played for, but that certain words can be misinterpreted.
“Everybody looks at each other as one color, or as brothers, because at the end of the day we’re all here fighting together to accomplish one goal,” he said. “Things can be said in a joking manner, but if it’s put out there in the wrong way, it can come off wrong.”
Local athletes in other sports expressed surprise that Martin’s ability to coexist with Incognito deteriorated to the point that he left the team.
Miami Heat forward Udonis Haslem said black-white interaction on the Heat has never been an issue. He and former Florida teammate Mike Miller were so close he used to say Miller was his “brother from another mother.”
“I guess you build a bond with guys and guys joke and mess around and kid each other a little bit, but it’s never to a level where it becomes disrespectful,” Haslem said. “We never take it that far.”
Mike Lowell, who played on Florida Marlins and Boston Red Sox World Series teams, said he never has witnessed racial or ethnic tension in the clubhouse.
“Was there a divide?” he said. “Yeah, but it was a language thing. The Japanese [in Boston]. The Latin guys hanging around with each other a little bit more. But this seems like it goes a lot further than that. It’s something that’s way over the top. It seems a little ridiculous.”
Hockey player Gregory Campbell, formerly of the Florida Panthers and now with the Boston Bruins, said the bar for teasing is high in sports but players should police themselves and each other to prevent it from becoming a degrading tone.
“It’s a culture in dressing rooms where the word we use is chirp, or talk trash,” he said. “But we all have morals, have grown up with values. The everyday banter — you have to get accustomed to it. But there certainly is a line you cannot cross.”
Incognito and Dolphins teammates either failed or refused to recognize Martin’s growing distress, especially as pressure increased on the offensive line, which was failing to protect Tannehill and on pace to allow a record number of sacks. Incognito, bullied as an overweight kid, preyed on what he perceived as weakness in Martin. But his efforts to “toughen up” the second-year player backfired.
Camaraderie, in Martin’s eyes, disguised cruelty.
He walked away from the fraternity, broke the code and now finds himself more ostracized than ever.
“Martin has chosen to fight back, but in a way that’s outside the 20th century tradition of punching back and keeping locker room secrets,” Edwards said. “It’s time to take a hard look at football culture. That’s why I always find hope for our society in sports — hope for positive change.”
Miami Herald reporters Adam Beasley, Joseph Goodman, George Richards and Clark Spencer contributed to this report.