Gridiron Soap Opera: Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito

Image courtesy of arkorn/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Image courtesy of arkorn/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

With the release of Ted Wells’ report (February 14) on misconduct within the Miami Dolphins’ organization, I decided it was time to revisit my November post on Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito.

I first heard about the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito story a few weeks ago on a local sports radio station. As I recall, it was presented in this way: On October 28, a Miami Dolphins player (Martin) had quit the team because he could no longer take the razzing from his teammates, who referred to him as a “weirdo.” I snickered and shook my head. That seemed innocuous enough. A grown man should be able to take that. In fact, my immediate thought was, He needs to suck it up.

As this story continued to unfold, my thoughts on the matter evolved as well. Now there seems to be much more to it than name calling and locker room hijinks. When Jonathan Martin left the team, he sought treatment at a hospital for emotional distress due to the sustained harassment. Coach Joe Philbin visited Martin during his brief stay in the hospital, but he did not “name names” nor make specific charges. Later, however, Martin’s agent released text and voice mail messages from Richie Incognito that included racial epithets and violent threats toward Martin’s family. After initially brushing off the incidents that led Martin to leave the team, the Dolphins organization responded by suspending Incognito indefinitely.

On October 28, according to Incognito, he and fellow offensive linesmen decided to pull a prank on Martin. When Martin came to join them during lunch, they all got up and left, leaving Martin alone at the table. As a result of this juvenile act, Martin threw his tray to the floor and left. In an interview by Fox’s Jay Glazer that aired on November 10, Incognito insists that his “actions were coming from a place of love.” When asked about the effect the endless ribbing was having on Martin, Incognito–model citizen that he is–feigned ignorance. He insisted that no one knew Martin was having a problem. And if they had known that Martin was being hurt by all of the schoolboy antics, they would have stopped. Despite his use of offensive language toward a black teammate–e.g., calling Jonathan Martin a nigger–he viewed Martin as a “close friend” and a “brother.” And he denied being a racist.

Incognito’s interview echoed the responses given by teammates last week. They described the well-known troublemaker, who was released from his college team (Nebraska) and his first professional team (St. Louis Rams) for issues relating to his documented anger management problems, as a good guy; a leader in the locker room; best of friends and like a big brother to Martin; and, incredulously, an honorary black man.

Jonathan Martin’s attorney released a statement (prior to Incognito’s Fox interview) charging that “Jonathan endured harassment that went far beyond the traditional locker room hazing.” He even “endured a malicious physical attack” from a teammate.

Certainly, those of us who are outside the locker room can never really know what goes on inside the locker room, but I smell a cover-up. People are readily coming to Richie Incognito’s aid and casting him as the “good guy” in this gridiron soap opera. Jonathan Martin may not exactly be the “bad guy,” but he is at least being cast as the “soft” guy or perhaps the mentally unstable guy.

Instead of questioning the culture of the NFL, many people are questioning Martin’s football and mental “toughness,” using his background as evidence of his unsuitability for professional football. Three generations of his family had attended Harvard. He attended an elite prep school. He attended Stanford University, which is not a typical football factory, on a football scholarship and studied the classics. He has discussed his desire to attend Harvard Law School. So, maybe he was not meant for the hard knocks life of the NFL.  But Martin’s lawyer contends that “toughness is not an issue.”

The NFL is currently investigating the circumstances that led Martin to leave his team which will, perhaps, bring clarity to this situation. To me it doesn’t matter whether Martin left because of sustained childish pranks or more sinister harassment. He has that right to say enough is enough. To paraphrase the late Pro Bowl safety Sean Taylor: These are men being paid a king’s ransom to play a kid’s game. So far, Martin seems to be one of the few adults in this matter.

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