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?”

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