NFL Bullying Is A Cultural Practice

Roger Goodell must have thought it was deja vu all over again.

Still in the shadow of Bounty Gate, the NFL commissioner awoke to the news that Miami Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin left the team because he was being bullied by teammate Richie Incognito. Goodell reacted swiftly – not because the league has a strict anti-bullying policy, but because nothing matters more to the NFL than hiding dysfunction.

It’s why the league killed ESPN’s Playmakers, slammed the New Orleans Saints for doing what football players always have done privately – target others – and it’s why the NFL will fine and/or suspend a small number of Miami employees.

Being a jerk is fine, just do it in private. That’s where Incognito screwed up.

The powerful and pudgy offensive lineman has never been shy to criticize others. If Richie’s self-esteem needed a boost, he’d find someone to beat down. So long as he did his job, no one cared.

On the Dan Patrick Show, Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp laughed while recalling an incident where Incognito kicked him and called him a racially derogatory name. Sapp wasn’t bothered because Incognito was employing an accepted level of gamesmanship.

Sapp told Incognito he wasn’t going to hit him, but do something worse. “I’m gonna beat your quarterback up so they cut your ass.”

Martin, a strong but largely passive intellectual, couldn’t deal with Incognito. After being the subject of taunts, threats and even racial epithets, Martin checked himself into a South Florida hospital to be treated for emotional distress. The news of Martin’s departure pissed off his teammates. Only a coward quits on his team.

Dolpins’ tackle Tyson Clabo was critical of Martin, saying, “If you have a problem with somebody … stand up and be a man.” Quarterback Ryan Tannehill dismissed the idea that Incognito was racist and said the two had a big brother-little brother relationship.

Even management went caveman. Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland told Martin’s agent that his client should punch Incognito in the mouth in retaliation. That’s what real men do.

I get what happened. Put enough men together without adult supervision, the child is going to come out. This is true regardless of occupation. I’ve been there.

In the U.S. submarine fleet, everyone must pass a qualification process that requires a working knowledge of all systems on board. Until you get your “dolphins” – the metal insignia that recognizes your qualification – you’re worthless.

As a nonqual or NUB (Non-Useful Body), you weren’t allowed to watch movies underway, you ate last and were generally assigned the dirtiest jobs.

Getting your dolphins is a big deal. It takes nearly a year, and passing the lengthy oral and written exam comes with a proper sense of accomplishment. To celebrate, your shipmates take turns punching you in the chest, pushing the insignia’s pins into your skin, causing intense bruising and some very minor blood loss. It hurts, but most are happy to take part. I was. It could have been worse.

To not have your dolphins “tacked on” meant you weren’t accepted. You could do your job, but you’d never be one of the guys. Having a few dozen tiny holes in my chest and a bruise that covered half of my upper torso meant I belonged.

Sounds stupid, doesn’t it? It is. But that’s what men do. It’s why so many are supporting Incognito.

Hazing is a part of NFL culture. Just as my commanding officer would have acted sharply if our actions became public, Goodell is moving to stem the criticism even though he knows hazing will continue.

The military has matured and largely done away with such practices. The NFL is far less progressive. Incognito was suspended but will find work even if not in Miami. Martin’s career may be over. He’s been labeled a coward, and in the macho NFL, nothing is worse.

Stupid? Yes. But that’s what men do.

Incognito’s bullying isn’t a surprise, neither is the reaction. It’s not right, but it’s a fact of life.
Twitter @SteveMurray84