Keeping Score

The NFL Is A Twisted Workplace

Even seemingly innocuous workplace behavior in pro sports wouldn't fly in most corporate settings

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Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images

Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito at Candlestick Park on December 9, 2012 in San Francisco, California.

No matter what actually transpired between Miami Dolphins offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin in the Dolphins locker room, this much is clear: the NFL is a naturally twisted workplace.

Incognito reportedly left a crass voice message on Martin’s phone this offseason – it included a racial slur. “Hey, wassup, you half n—– piece of s—.” said the message, which the NFL has heard. “I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] s— in your f—ing mouth. [I'm going to] slap your f—ing mouth. [I'm going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. F— you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”

He allegedly bullied Martin into paying $15,000 for a trip to Las Vegas, even though Martin did not want to go. The Dolphins suspended Incognito on Sunday night for conduct detrimental to the team. Martin has left the Dolphins while reportedly coping with emotional issues related to being harassed on the job.

In the NFL, there’s often a blurry line between hazing and outright abuse. When your job is to be a maniac on the field, it shouldn’t be surprising that a player like Incognito, who has a history of anger management and substance abuse issues, could take things to far. “The NFL made him who he is,” says former former NFL offensive lineman Kyle Turley, who has met and worked out with Incognito in the past. “This is the culture of football that’s been embedded into his head.  He’s a product of the game.”

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Turley took part in an infamous hazing incident his rookie year with the Saints, back in 1998. “It was like a prison gang initiation,” says Turley.  He and other Saints rookies had to run through a hallway, with pillowcases on their heads, while teammates punched and kicked them. One player missed time because of blurred vision, while another crashed through a window and sued the Saints, six players and an assistant coach, The case was settled out of court. Turley says he bruised a knee on the concrete floor. “They were just doing what they knew to do,” he says of the veterans who hazed him.

Former tight end Christian Fauria didn’t go through anything that drastic, back when he was a rookie with Seattle in 1995. When Fauria was with the Patriots from 2002-2005, the team would organize a big dinner, he says, where the rookies paid. One year, the bill came out to $35,000. “No joke,” Fauria says. “And it came to the point, literally, where I thought somebody was going to get hurt. Because the rookies that had to pay for it were flat out calling bulls–t. And I remember going’ ‘holy crap, all I had to do was buy donuts. They didn’t even shave my head. They didn’t do anything.'”

While Fauria doesn’t defend Incognito’s behavior, he does defend the locker room. “The NFL already has a bad enough reputation sometimes for being Cro-Magnon meatheads,” says Fauria, a college football analyst for CBS. “I don’t want people to think this is the way it is. It isn’t. For 90% of the time, the experiences that you have are life-changing, body-and-mind-strengthening, take-on-the-world-after-you’re-done experiences. But again, there’s always one a-hole in the group.”

If teams simply stopped pressuring rookies to pay for stuff, no one could take things too far. But some players are convinced that such traditions can help build winning teams. “I think it does have a place,” says former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, had to a pay $1,000 rookie tab back in 2005, no chump change for a special-teams player. “And really, I think it does build teamwork. Because when I look back at my rookie dinner, while I shudder at the fact that I’m spending a thousand dollars on dinner, it was definitely ‘I’m in the NFL now, I’m with these guys now, I’m in the league. I’m part of it.’ I really think it does have a place bringing guys together.”

(Kluwe says he saw Incognito at a bar in Hawaii before this year’s Pro Bowl. “He was being a d–k to the bartender,” says Kluwe. “Just making fun of him, telling him to be quicker with the drinks. And I mean, there’s like 30 players surrounding this bar all asking for drinks. It’s like, ‘come on, man, have a little empathy for a guy who’s trying to do a job that’s probably not that easy to do right now.'”)

The Dolphins apparently took hazing to an extreme. Over the weekend, Dolphins defensive end Jared Odrick wrote on Twitter “everything tastes better when rookies pay for it,” and posted a picture of a lavish spread, while the Miami Herald reported that veterans repeatedly used younger players as cash machines. Are rituals seen as harmless in the NFL really appropriate for any work environment? Things like rookies carrying the bags of veterans, or being forced to dress in drag and sing in front of the team. Players spend their whole lives working to earn their first NFL paychecks, only to be taxed by their teammates at ridiculously expensive dinners. Imagine your new boss sticking you with a tab, no matter how ridiculously inexpensive the meal.

“Even the most innocuous behavior in pro sports,” says Scott Rosner, a business ethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who has written about hazing in sports, “would not be tolerated in the vast majority of workplaces. But in the vast amount of workplaces, you aren’t paid a lot of money to smash people at high velocities for entertainment.”

From a societal standpoint, the Incognito-Martin mess could deliver some positive benefits. “This is a good role modeling opportunity,” says Dr. Joel Haber, a clinical psychologist and anti-bullying expert. “Bullying isn’t only a kids thing. Big and tough NFL players have to deal with it too. Martin didn’t sit there and take it. He admitted that he had a tough time with it. He was struggling. What’s the shame in that?”

(MORE: Second Man Convicted In Killing of Redskins Safety Sean Taylor)

4 comments
BenIncaHutz
BenIncaHutz

Incogito is not a product of the NFL. He has had behavior issues at every school he has ever attended. He has alot of roid rage and is a ticking time bomb.  The NFL should make sure he does not have access to weapons. He kills someone I hope the NFL is sued for Billions with a "B".

davidjaguilar
davidjaguilar

Mr. Gregory,

Thank you for acknowledging the current issue of hazing in sports regarding Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. I find it appalling that such a toxic environment has persisted for so long within as well-respected a sports franchise as the Miami Dolphins. While I acknowledge that there has been a history throughout sports in which rookies must work to earn the respect of their veteran teammates, I feel that the time has come to eliminate such hazing all together. I agree with you in that now is the perfect time to use this example as a model for how all other sports organizations should handling incidents of bullying and hazing. I find it hard to believe that forcing rookies to pay for their teammates' meals or to carry their shoulder pads promotes camaraderie and boosts team morale as some players may argue. Why is it that a player who is new to the league needs to cater to his teammates in order to gain their trust? Is it not enough for the player to prove himself on the field? I also question why so many coaches and front office personnel allow such humiliating hazing acts to take place in front of them.  In my opinion, more teams need to take the approach of Dallas Cowboys’ coach Jason Garrett who banned hazing of rookies altogether saying "the young guys are part of our team and they certainly need to get themselves acclimated in a lot of different ways, and our veteran players are in charge of welcoming them to the NFL in a very positive way." Athletes, whether rookies or veterans, are all equal people and should be treated as such within their organizations.  Coaches need to work to ensure that the environment in which their players practice is one that promotes such equality.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the National Football League as a whole needs to establish anti-hazing rules for multiple reasons. As I hinted at above, the league must seek to protect the best interests of its players at all times. The NFL Players Association has largely remained silent regarding hazing rituals in the NFL and will not be investigating this current issue facing the Dolphins. What then is the role of the NFLPA if it is just going to shy away from taking care of its own athletes? The NFLPA needs to make a move to address what constitutes hazing and create penalties for engaging in such behavior.  Another reason that the NFL needs hazing rules is mentioned by John Lopez who cites “the oldest and most resounding reason of all: money and the potential for a doozy of a lawsuit.” It appears as if the NFL has been waiting for a significant incident such as this to occur before taking action to protect themselves from harm. However, they may have waited too long and may be headed toward a nasty lawsuit.  The league is a business and as such the players need to be treated as businessmen. In no other work setting would hazing be permitted, and the NFL should follow this model. While some may argue that there is a difference between the hazing that most teams engage in and the bullying that Incognito practiced, I believe the NFL should take advantage of this opportunity to ban all of it together and eliminate the gray area that exists. In doing so, teams can avoid future morale issues that result from player maltreatment and create a more positive environment in which both rookies and veterans can thrive together as a team.

 David Aguilar

drdischord
drdischord

The most dangerous gangs in my middle school, high school, and college were the football and basketball teams.  They were more dangerous than the print shop thugs or the petty thieves and lone bullies, because they had impunity.  At Maryland, they were central to Mafia control of most business done on campus.  My instructors were terrified of them.  Chomsky has explained their role in desensitizing the society to organized state violence, part of the way our leaders manufacture our consent for wars of resource acquisition.  (Google "Chomsky's sports rap".)  As with so many things destroying our society and our planet, we're in deep denial about it.


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