Friction can be inevitable between players on the same sports team. Natural reasons for feeling frustrated toward a peer in athletics are manifold. The pressures of competing. The sting of losing. The cramped locker rooms. The aggressive jocularity. The unfortunate traditions of hazing. The internal jockeying over limited playing time. The continual emotional swings during games.
However, what happened in the Miami Dolphins NFL franchise is atypical and unacceptable.
Citing emotional distress, Dolphins second-year offensive tackle Jonathan Martin left the team on Oct. 30 to seek psychological treatment. Subsequent reports indicated that Martin endured perpetual and demeaning hazing from several teammates. Most flagrant in abuse among the alleged bullies was eight-year-veteran guard Richie Incognito.
According to news stories, Incognito — who ironically got elected earlier this year to Miami’s “leadership council” — would hold meetings for fellow offensive linemen in strip clubs. Players who refused to attend were fined and harassed by the brutish leader-elect. His checkered past, a history of being kicked off of college and pro teams, also speaks ill of his character. Allegedly, he helped set the reckless pace of rookie hazing in Miami, and had a special eye for tormenting Martin.
Legal representatives for Martin have released messages sent to the rookie by Incognito. These leave little doubt as to the difference between good-natured ribbing, and flagrant abuse. One voice mail made public includes the startlingly appalling phrase: “Hey, wassup you half (racial slur) piece of (expletive).” Other communications feature violent, sexual threats toward Martin and his family.
It’s no wonder he fled this noxious situation. Surprisingly, many players, including Miami Dolphins, have publicly defended Incognito in the matter. They wondered why the victim in response did not simply punch his instigator. This is the classic misjudgment of how to address bullying: answer abuse with further abuse. When that occurs on sports teams, locker rooms can devolve into “The Lord of the Flies,” in which only maximal aggression is respected.
And in which a patent bully like Incognito is elected by his peers as their leader. His actions surpass hazing or masculine teasing. Although locker rooms should be permitted a certain level of self-policing, Dolphins officials clearly were remiss in preventing player-on-player mistreatment. As NFL investigations begin, Miami has cut Incognito. Additional personnel purging is likely, if not necessary, for the franchise to move beyond its sad nadir.
Their low point is a lesson for other teams in all sports and levels. Squads win and lose as a unit, and as such take on their own cultures of hierarchies, rookie initiations and playful teasing. But when lack of administrative oversight leads to manifest abuse, real psychological harm can come to those targeted. A wise coach is he or she who instructs players on camaraderie, demonstrates respect as an example, and recognizes and then takes action when this essential atmosphere of dignity is threatened by bullies.