NFL players are different than the rest of us. They are bigger, faster, and stronger. They get paid to damage each other, damage that gets inflicted in front of an audience of millions. They’re always at risk of losing their jobs—if it doesn’t happen on account of dropping a ball or missing a tackle, it will come when those hits take their inevitable toll. Those of us who work in an office, and who collaborate with people who aren’t trying to rupture other men’s spleens, don’t know what it’s like to inhabit a pro football locker room. According to several members of the Miami Dolphins, that means we’re in no position to judge what goes on inside of one.
Over the last few days, Dolphins players have fought back against the allegation that offensive lineman Jonathan Martin was bullied, and that his teammate Richie Incognito was the leader of the brawny cabal that drove Martin to leave the team. They’ve been making two different arguments. The first is that the NFL’s social code is the product of pro football’s unceasing intensity. “I don’t want to call it hazing,” said defensive end Cameron Wake. “I mean, that’s—rite of passage—in this league. It’s a group of elite men. It’s a fraternity, it’s a brotherhood. It’s a lot of things. And there’s a membership. You have to pay your dues to get certain privileges.” The second is that there’s a right way to deal with problems in that culture, and that Jonathan Martin’s preferred approach was very, very wrong. “I think if you have a problem with somebody—a legitimate problem with somebody—you should say, ‘I have a problem with this,’ and stand up and be a man,” said offensive lineman Tyson Clabo.
These Dolphins are half right. The life of a pro football player is almost unbearably stressful both on and off the field, and we shouldn’t expect the game that invented the horse-collar tackle to abide by white-collar norms. But what they don’t seem to understand is that today’s NFL culture is not some immutable law of the gridiron. The traditions and hierarchies that flourish in the Miami locker room, and no doubt across the league, haven’t been passed down from player to player because this is the way a football team has to operate. They’ve been passed down because players and coaches have long believed it’s the way teams should operate. And that can change, if only those players and coaches wanted it to.
Instead of thinking through the rules and rituals by which football teams operate, Martin and Incognito’s current and former teammates have been trying to justify them. In an essay for the MMQB, ex-Miami lineman Lydon Murtha wrote that Martin “came off as standoffish and shy to the rest of the offensive linemen” and “did something I’d never seen before by balking at the idea of paying for a rookie dinner.” Murtha, who says he paid $9,600 for a dinner his rookie season, can’t understand why Martin didn’t fall in line. His argument here—everyone else was doing it, so he should have too—is a remarkably blinkered one. Martin, by contrast, seems to have been an independent enough thinker to raise the more pertinent question: In what universe do “grown-ass men,” in Murtha’s parlance, convince themselves that it’s totally rational for rookies to drop $10,000 to fill veteran players’ bellies with booze and steak?
Murtha went on to say that “Incognito took [Martin] under his wing,” and that part of that mentorship included “giv[ing] him a lot of crap” if the young lineman wasn’t playing well in practice. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill said that Incognito gave Martin “a hard time. He messed with him. But he was the first one there to have his back in any situation.” Murtha noted that the “crap he would give Martin was no more than he gave anyone else, including me. Other players said the same things Incognito said to Martin, so you’d need to suspend the whole team if you suspend Incognito.”
This is the definition of narrow-mindedness: When their team fractured, the Dolphins sided with the mold rather than the player who broke it. It’s this kind of thinking that breeds athletes who mistake machismo for toughness and hectoring for leadership. By the logic of the NFL, if someone has a problem with the way players talk to and treat each other, then they’re the ones with the problem.
What recourse did Jonathan Martin have? According to Pro Football Talk, Miami general manager Jeff Ireland allegedly told the lineman’s agent that he should resolve his issues by punching Incognito. If Ireland indeed suggested fisticuffs as the best possible remedy, you can understand why Martin felt his only choice was to walk away. By questioning the logic by which football teams work, and by leaving the team when it didn’t work for him, Martin was a leader. The Dolphins, though, are outraged that he wasn’t a follower—they want him to be just like them. Incognito, a member of Miami’s so-called “leadership council,” guided his teammate by sending him voice mails and texts full of threats and racial slurs. Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline said on Wednesday that Martin was “laughing about this voice mail at one point and time.”
For Hartline, Martin’s laughter makes a louder noise than a player calling a teammate a “half n—– piece of s—” and saying, “F— you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.” When you play for the Dolphins, I guess, this is the kind of language that’s expected to draw chuckles. And if you stop laughing, then you’re just not man enough to play a game for a living.
Hartline explained his thinking on Martin and Incognito this way: “The people who can hurt you the most in this world are the people closest to you. When you mistake one for the other, that’s when you find problems.” What’s terrifying is that Hartline was referring to Martin as the one who caused the hurt here.
At this point, we haven’t heard from every member of the Dolphins team. It’s possible that there’s a silent majority—or at least a silent handful—who don’t see Martin as a betrayer, and are willing to think about what his departure means about what’s right and what’s wrong in an NFL locker room. I’ve never played in a pro football game. But I feel very comfortable saying that no amount of stress, and no amount of testosterone, can justify a system in which colleagues belittle each other in the crudest possible terms and are expected to work things out with a punch to the face. Rather than face up to a culture that breeds this kind of inhumanity, too many of the Miami Dolphins are blaming the victim. They should be blaming themselves.