NFL's culture of hazing, bullying must be stopped

Published Nov. 5, 2013

How did this happen?

How does a Stanford-educated, 24-year-old man who stands an imposing 6 feet 5, 312 pounds and plays in one of the meanest sporting leagues in the world become so scared of a teammate that he risks ridicule and scorn by walking away from his job as a well-paid professional football player?

Here's how: sports and the NFL, in particular, have created a culture where hazing, teasing and bullying have not only become an accepted practice, but a respected time-honored rite of passage.

It has to stop.

Whether it's being taped to a goalpost, forced to carry equipment, singing college fight songs, fetching Gatorade or picking up the tab at an expensive dinner, rookies have been pushed around by veterans since the days of leather helmets. So we shouldn't be stunned that a caveman such as the Dolphins' Richie Incognito took hazing to another level by doing what he is alleged to have done to teammate Jonathan Martin. According to reports, Incognito

physically threatened Martin, taunted him with racial slurs, demanded and received money to pay for a trip to Las Vegas and, generally, made Martin's life a living hell.

And while this appears to be an extreme example of hazing that evolved into bullying, you're naive if you think this is an isolated case. Incognito's harassment of Martin, who is in his second NFL season, has been going on for nearly 18 months and we didn't hear about it until Martin left the team last week. More reports say other Dolphins veterans use rookies as ATMs to pay for their South Florida lifestyles.

And based on the initial reaction of the public and his own team, you could see why Martin was hesitant to say anything.

When this story broke, the reaction was swift and one-sided: Martin was being a baby. He was being too sensitive. He needed to man up.

Even now, some suggest that if Martin felt Incognito had crossed the line, he should have taken matters into his own hands — as if it's acceptable to go to your workplace, even if that workplace is an NFL locker room, and settle your problems with violence.

Yet, that is the NFL mentality. If someone disrespects you, the appropriate response is a fist. But in the violent manly-man's world of the NFL, what you don't do is cry about it. What you don't do is run away. What you don't do is tell on them.

Meantime, the Dolphins bungled this situation right from the start. On Sunday morning, they said stories of bullying and harassment were "speculation'' and talked about how they were helping Martin "during this time'' as if Martin had done something wrong.

After the Sunday morning NFL pregame shows started uncovering the messy details, the Dolphins released a second statement, saying they took the allegations seriously. Mind you, this was six days after Martin left the team.

Finally, only after the Dolphins and the NFL were made aware of vile, threatening and racially-charged text and telephone messages that Incognito allegedly sent to Martin did the team suspend Incognito.

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Until then, this was a classic case of bullying, which works on a 24-year-old for the same reasons it works on a 10-year-old. The victim does what he is told. He stays quiet because he is afraid of making matters worse. He's afraid of retribution. He's afraid of being viewed as a tattletale or a rat. (Those words, alone, have negative connotations.) He's afraid he won't be believed. He's afraid of being outcast. He's afraid nothing will be done.

He is afraid. Of everything.

Meantime, none of Martin's teammates stood up for him, another by-product of bullying. There's the bully and then everyone who stands around allowing it to happen, whether it's in an NFL locker room or on the playground of an elementary school.

Football isn't the only sport where there is hazing. I've personally watched Lightning veterans order expensive steak dinners with wine and champagne and every appetizer on the menu and then hand the bill to rookies. Every year, Rays rookies are ordered to dress up in embarrassing costumes on a road trip. Many teams across all sports have such hazing rituals.

The Lightning and Rays traditions are tame compared to the Dolphins case. While the veterans with the Lightning and Rays might explain these scenarios as bonding experiences that everyone has been through, they are flat-out wrong. This is hazing. It should not be tolerated.

Rays rookies might publicly laugh while dressing up like a Hooters girl or a nurse or a baby, but there is no doubt in my mind that somewhere along the way, there was a Rays rookie who didn't want to do it, who felt extremely uncomfortable, yet did not dare refuse because of how it might look.

In 2010, then-Cowboys rookie Dez Bryant refused to carry the pads of veteran receiver Roy Williams. Bryant was roundly criticized for being a malcontent, for not being a good rookie, for being a bad teammate. Williams explained that he had to do it when he was a rookie.

"I carried pads, I paid for dinners, I paid for lunches,'' Williams said at the time. "I did everything I was supposed to do, because I didn't want to be that guy."

That guy? See the mentality here?

Look, this doesn't happen everywhere. Tony Dungy didn't allow hazing. Neither did Don Shula. Many coaches don't. But to dismiss this as an isolated incident caused by a bad seed would be negligent.

All hazing needs to stop: the singing, the dinners, the carrying of equipment. That's what leads to stories like this one.

If it doesn't, the next time a story like this comes up, it won't be just the bully's fault. It will be everyone who allowed it to happen.

Staying quiet? Doing nothing? Making the victim feel helpless? Turning a blind eye? Permitting this behavior?

That's what a bully counts on.