Miami Dolphins problem: Richie Incognito & Jonathan Martin a case of hazing
Neil Reynolds speaks to former NFL stars about locker room hazing and the Incognito/Martin case.
Last Updated: 13/11/13 4:21pm
Sadly, a lot of that outstanding play has been overshadowed by accusations of racism and bullying in the Miami Dolphins locker room.
The alleged bullying of Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin led to the second-year player leaving the AFC East club after suffering "an emotional breakdown". In the midst of a seemingly endless round of "he said/he said" the Dolphins have suspended guard Richie Incognito, who Martin claims has been the main instigator of the abuse.
With the NFL launching an official investigation into the incident in Miami, Martin has released text messages from Incognito that were both racial and threatening in nature. Martin also revealed his exit came after "persistent bullying and teasing".
As the headlines continue to be written in south Florida, we asked veterans of the NFL about their thoughts on the Dolphins situation and on the treatment of young players generally around the league.
We spoke with Anthony 'Booger' McFarland and Rocky Boiman. McFarland played defensive tackle for eight seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts, winning Super Bowls during the 2002 and 2006 campaigns. Boiman also played eight seasons in the NFL, starring at the linebacker position for the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers from 2002-2009, winning a Super Bowl with the Colts in 2006.
First, we asked them about the recent news coming out of Miami.
"What appears to have happened in Miami is that Richie Incognito took it personally and took it too far," McFarland stresses. "When Jonathan Martin didn't comply with some of the things Richie wanted him to do, Richie kind of took it into his own hands and took it too far. That should not be done in the locker room.
"Hopefully, Richie gets cut from Miami because I don't think he deserves to play in the league any more. And hopefully, Jonathan Martin finds the strength to face the locker room again because he is a young guy and deserves to keep playing. It is going to be difficult for him to return to the Dolphins because he is going to be looked at as a player who cannot handle the pressure and handle what goes on in an NFL locker room. Gaining the trust of the guys in the locker room is going to be hard for him to do."
"It spiralled out of control in Miami and it shows there is a real lack of leadership with the Dolphins from the general manager on down," Boiman adds. "First of all, how does nobody know this is going on? How does nobody know there is a real divisive thing going on in our locker room?
"What really bothers me is that no veteran player stepped up and said, 'Hey, we're not going to do this Mickey Mouse thing.' All the great teams I played on, guys like Kevin Carter, Peyton Manning or Reggie Wayne would step up and say, 'This is going to stop right now because it is not going to help us win football games.' For the Dolphins, no one was willing and able to do that."
Hazing of rookie players varies from team to team across the NFL. But it is clear there is a hierarchy in all locker rooms and young players have to earn the respect of veterans who are already well-established.
Earlier this year while working on another article, I asked Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen what advice he would give to rookies preparing for their first season in the NFL. His reply spoke volumes about his thoughts on young players just coming out of college.
Allen's advice was clear as he replied: "Shut your mouth. It was a little different when I came into the league but these kids have a sense of entitlement because colleges can't yell at them anymore. I wasn't allowed to speak as a rookie but now I've put in 10 long, hard years. Just shut your mouth and let your play speak for itself. Shut your mouth, go to work and prove it on the field."
As I recounted on one of our Sky Sports shows a couple of weeks ago, I have witnessed the 'NFL totem pole' mentality in person. When visiting one NFL club in the summer, I saw a young player heading to one of the bathroom stalls after a team meeting.
At that point, a veteran player walked into the toilets behind him and said: "Don't even think about it rookie." The rookie in question then stepped to one side, allowed the veteran to go into the stall and waited patiently for another to become available. It was only a fleeting moment, but it spoke volumes about how rookie players are viewed by those who have been in the league for a while.
Stories of rookies running errands and grabbing breakfast and snacks for veteran players are common, but it appears things went further in Miami as Martin claims he was forced to pay $15,000 for an offensive line trip to Las Vegas that he never even planned on taking. Dolphins rookies were also forced to pay an estimated $30,000 on a team dinner and there were reports from the Miami Herald that "veterans are using the younger players as an ATM".
McFarland and Boiman have seen the treatment of rookies up close and personal during their time in the NFL. As you would expect, they have strong if occasionally differing opinions on the subject.
"Every winning football team I was ever on, there was never any of this childish B.S. in terms of hazing," Boiman insists. "I remember my rookie year and our head coach, Jeff Fisher, stood up the day before training camp and said, 'We're not having any of this hazing stuff - that does not help you win one football game.'
"This childish fifth grade stuff of teasing a guy is not good - if you're not spending every second of your time getting better and trying to win football games, you're doing something wrong. The great coaches I've been around - Jeff Fisher, Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin - there was never any hazing on their teams and I cannot imagine it happens on a Bill Belichick team in New England. It's childish and unfortunate."
McFarland counters: "There are rookie initiations in every NFL locker room. Rookies either go along with it or they fight it - for those who fight it, it lasts a little longer. It's all meant to bring the team closer together.
"Some of the things that all rookies do for veterans is to carry pads - veterans get the rookie players to carry their pads off the field. Rookies buy a huge dinner at the beginning of the season. We split ours between offense and defense and the rookies take care of the bill, whatever it costs. Then on Saturdays you have normal things like rookie bringing veterans breakfast, or doughnuts, or food for the plane.
"Nothing ridiculous but it might cost a first round pick earning a million dollars per year about $20,000 throughout the season. The rookies are the lowest men on the totem pole and they have to do certain things, not necessarily to be part of the group, but to show your rite of passage coming into the NFL."
Boiman has a problem with the amount of money being extorted from rookies in today's NFL. Rookies paying for dinners was a part of his NFL, but not to the level we are reading about now.
"I'm not against making a rookie bring in a little bit of lunch or buy you dinner," the former linebacker states. "I have no problem with that. But it really has spiralled out of control.
"When I was playing, if there was a first round pick on defense he would take his room - the linebackers, for example - out to dinner. Okay, that might be a few hundred bucks or up to a thousand bucks. But now we hear reports of $15-20,000 bills on meals. What are we doing?"
McFarland is adamant that the hazing of rookies has to be accepted as a way for the younger players to fit in.
"If somebody asks you to go and rob a bank, that's different," McFarland stresses. "But if guys are asking you to carry their pads or asking you to bring certain doughnuts to the facility on Saturdays, that's more tedious than being anything approaching physical labour.
"That shows you are willing to fit in because rookies are supposed to be seen and not heard. Nobody wants to hear a lot from rookies. It's a fraternity that has 1,600 players and in every fraternity out there, you have to go through some things to become a part of it. You just don't get to come into this fraternity and reap the benefits without going through some of the things we have all been through as rookies."
Of course, one of the problems in Miami - among many - is that Martin is no longer a rookie and should have moved past the hazing stage of his career.
"The reason it went into a second year with Jonathan Martin is because Richie Incognito took it personally," McFarland reveals. "He took it personally - if Jonathan had gone along with some of the things like paying for meals, bringing the guys breakfast or picking up some dry cleaning it would not have been a problem.
"He resented it and Richie took it personally. It's as if he said to Jonathan Martin, 'I'll show you, Jonathan. I'm a veteran and you're going to do what I tell you to do.' It became personal and then it became racial and then it became harassment. It became so many other things that it shouldn't have."
According to many pundits and former players across the United States, Martin could have ended the bullying by standing up to Incognito and fighting an established veteran who was voted onto Miami's six-player Leadership Council in the off-season.
But those suggesting such drastic measures from Martin are forgetting that former Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin had a locker room fight with veteran running back Thomas Jones during his rookie year and we slammed him in the media for being a locker room cancer.
Boiman argues: "Here's Jonathan Martin, he's in his second year, he's making good money and he wants to be accepted. Is punching somebody in the face going to make you more accepted? I don't necessarily think so.
"Here is the other thing to remember - Jonathan is not a real physical guy. He is more of a passive guy and he is not that aggressive - so he's not going to punch somebody in the face because that's not what he is all about. To think he is going to do that all of a sudden is stupid.
"There are reports that the Dolphins wanted to toughen this kid up. In my experience, you are what you are by the time you're an adult. If you're not aggressive by the time you're 21 or 22 years old, you're probably not going to become aggressive as a result of somebody teasing you.
"The idea that roughing this guy up is going to make him more aggressive is stupid to me - you are what you are when you're an adult. By the time you get to the NFL, the story is already written."