Someone told Bills coach Doug Marrone during his Wednesday media session that he seemed a bit subdued. Marrone said it was because the sport he loves was under attack again – this time about the Richie Incognito hazing scandal.
“I knew I would be asked that question,” Marrone said, “and it hits me a little bit to heart.”
Marrone admitted he was concerned about the long-term future of football, which has been under siege in recent months on a number of fronts, most notably the rising fear of concussions driving kids away from the game.
“I’m kind of a soapbox guy,” Marrone said, “but I do have concerns for it. We have to do a good job and continue to keep pushing to do a better job of how we talk about our game.”
Now we’re talking about the way players treat one another. Incognito, the Dolphins’ veteran offensive lineman, was suspended late Sunday for “conduct detrimental to the team” after lineman Jonathan Martin left the team to seek help for emotional issues after alleged hazing by Incognito and other teammates.
According to one report, Dolphins coaches had urged Incognito to “toughen up” Martin, a second-year player, after he missed two voluntary workouts last spring. Evidently, Martin saved a voicemail message in which Incognito threatened to kill him and uttered a slur that denigrated his biracial identity.
The story, which has dominated national sports coverage for three days, is likely to prompt the NFL to examine its policies on hazing. One report said the league, ever wary of its public image, is already contemplating a review.
For the mighty NFL, the hits keep on coming. Before the Super Bowl, President Obama said if he had a son, he wouldn’t want him to play football. In the first five months after the big game, 29 NFL players were arrested. Aaron Hernandez was charged with the murder of Odin Lloyd and implicated in two other unsolved homicides.
Last month, it was “League of Denial,” the book and PBS documentary on the league’s systematic denial that repeated head shots could cause concussions and brain damage. That was two months after the league paid a $765 million settlement to 4,200 ex-players who accused the NFL of failing to properly educate them about the risk of head injury.
Now hazing. As Marrone said, it’s important to distinguish between hazing and the often benign rookie initiation rituals. Marrone said he doesn’t condone abuse and humiliation, and has never witnessed it during his time as a player or coach.
Of course, that depends on your definition. Rookies are often stuck with dinner bills by veteran teammates. Sources told ESPN that Martin had to kick in $15,000 for a Las Vegas trip he did not even attend.
Supposedly, this is boys being boys, an attempt to test the mettle of the new guys and whether you can trust them in “battle.” A lot of people compare this to the military. My God, we’re talking about sports!
That’s part of the league’s problem, the pressure to show how tough you are, to show your teammates you’re a man. That’s what drove countless NFL players to run back on the field in earlier times with broken bones or undiagnosed concussions, to prove they weren’t soft.
It’s an archaic and twisted principle. A player cannot show any sign of weakness or risk being separated from the pack. That’s what happened with Martin, who was apparently too sensitive – or evolved – to accept the crass motivational methods of someone like Incognito.
“That voice mail will ultimately be the biggest issue,” said Bills center Eric Wood, who was briefly a linemate of Incognito in Buffalo a few years ago. “You can greatly lose the respect of teammates by talking like that. But I think there’s probably two sides of the story.”
Incognito was once voted the second-dirtiest player in the NFL. He was thrown off the team at the University of Nebraska for an off-field incident. He was dismissed from the Rams after a shouting match with his head coach. He got into a fight with a bouncer last summer.
Of course, this sort of character is often celebrated within the football culture. Coaches admire the guy who is a little off-kilter. You have to be a little crazy to play this game, to “get your bell rung” and run back onto the field for more.
Time Magazine once called the NFL “a naturally twisted workplace.” That’s about right. As Marrone says, there’s a lot of good in football. But it’s also the world’s oldest boys club, a sanctuary for arrested male adolescents.
Bart Scott, the former NFL linebacker, said the league should be thankful that Martin didn’t go after Incognito with a gun. Scott called Incognito a “fake tough guy who suffers from mood swings, if you know what I mean.”
If Scott is suggesting that Incognito has taken one too many hits to the head, it’s a fair point. Considering Incognito’s history of erratic behavior, would it be any surprise if he one day joined the legion of former NFL players who experience mental problems later in life?
Concussions are a far bigger problem than hazing. But both issues involve a twisted sense of what it means to be a good teammate and a man. The league finally admitted its problem with head hits. Now it needs to make sure none of these infantile rituals are damaging the psyche of younger players.
Why not do away with these initiation rites altogether?
“That’s definitely a possibility,” Wood said. “I hate it because this will give all the older players who say the game has changed even more ammunition. Like, ‘Players are getting softer.’ But I think the culture’s changing, especially with the anti-bullying in schools.”
There’s the word. Incognito is a cheap schoolyard bully. Shame on any coach who propped him up as some leader, as a real man.