Keith Strudler: Hazing, Incognito And The NFL

Nov 6, 2013

When I say the word hazing, you probably think about college, maybe a frat house where pledges are forced to dress up or clean the house or things far more onerous and potentially dangerous. In fact, hazing has gone from something of a tradition to a dirty word, something that keeps college presidents up all night. Once a right of passage, now it’s something of a criminal offense.

But what we don’t think of when we say hazing, is Jonathon Martin and Richie Incognito. The pair are, or perhaps were teammates on the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, both offensive linemen who spend the better part of their time working together to keep people from sacking Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Only last week, Martin stormed out of the team cafeteria never to return, citing emotional issues. For the most part, sports fans dismissed Martin as unstable or immature, despite the fact that characterization defies Martin’s history as a stable Stanford educated teammate.

As time shortly passed, it became evident that Martin’s angst tied to what many are terming “bullying,” which feels ill-fitting in the context of a 6’5”, 312-pound football player. But as the facts slowly reveal, Martin was frequently and systematically abused by Incognito.  The offenses ranged from calling him names, as odd as that sounds, to leaving racially charged voice messages on his cell phone. The full extent of the harassment is still unknown, as is the extent to which Dolphins administrators knew of the behavior. At least according to one recent report, Miami coaches told Incognito to toughen up Martin after having missed off-season conditioning drills. It all sounds just a bit too much like the script from A Few Good Men. You’re just waiting to hear about someone calling a code red on Santiago.

What doesn’t help in better understanding the issue from this particular case is Richie Incognito’s sordid history. Incognito has been involved with everything from barroom brawls to berating his coach on the sideline. So he’s a bit of a strawman when trying to contextualize the larger issue of systemic hazing in pro sports.

What is clear is that hazing does exist, although it usually takes on more of a financial toll than anything else. Rookie athletes are regularly forced to foot the bill for dinners for veteran teammates. And I’m not talking IHOP, but $15,000 tabs at the Palms. And by all accounts, this is accepted as standard practice, typically under the guise of team building, like it’s a ropes course at a corporate retreat.

We may never know the full extent of the abuse in this particular case, nor the extent it’s epidemic vs. outlier. That may inevitably find discovery over time, or perhaps not, if the NFL decides to squash this information like it does with other wide-spread problems, like concussions.

But what is easily assessed and telling are the responses to this case. More than a few inside the NFL, including Giants safety Antrel Rolle, have suggested Martin is at least partly to blame for his compliance. They surmise that Martin is a grown man who needs to learn to say no. That’s the distinction between him and some 18 year old college freshman just wanting to fit in. The general public has shared much of the same viewpoint, suggesting this is a whole lot of nothing, hypersensitivity at its worst, a highly compensated athlete unable to take a simple joke.

What’s lost in that rhetoric is the true nature of sport, especially as it exists in the NFL. Football is a game of order and conformity, where fitting in is far more important than standing out. And defying that mandate can be costly – in the case of Jonathon Martin, millions of dollars over the course of a career. Football players have been told over and over and over again to listen and follow rules at all costs. And breaking that trust, that family, is what turns championship teams to dysfunctional ones. Which makes it that much easier to understand why a young football player, even a professional one, can’t challenge a veteran, especially one with the backing of his own coaches. So guys just deal with it and stay quiet until they snap, like Martin did last week, because anything else would be a full betrayal of everything they’ve ever known.

It’s abuse in its truest form, even if the general public doesn’t recognize it. But it’s just another thing the NFL needs to consider if it wants to maintain its place in the American mantleplace. Otherwise, it too might go the way of the American college fraternity, a storied institution whose glory days are increasingly long past.

Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.

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