Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Martin, Incognito, and Locker Room Culture

By Brad Oremland

We're still learning about the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito saga in Miami. It's a strange story, with information coming to light gradually, slowly. It's a sports story that affects a team with playoff aspirations, and it's a gossip story with betrayal, hurt feelings, and shocking language. No surprise, it's drawing more and more attention.

Most of you already know the basics, but for those who don't: Martin, a second-year offensive lineman from Stanford, left the Miami Dolphins in late October. He cited emotional issues, then retained a lawyer who has handled the public situation since. Most notably, Martin's lawyer released a voicemail from fellow Dolphin Richie Incognito, which crosses numerous boundaries of good taste, including a racial slur and a death threat. Incognito acknowledges leaving the message, but calls it a joke. The team has suspended him, but multiple Dolphin players have publicly supported Incognito and called him a team leader.

It was interesting to observe the different positions CBS, FOX, and NBC took in addressing the situation this weekend. At CBS, the tone was sorrow, disappointment, and disapproval. Boomer Esiason recommended a wait-and-see approach as more facts emerge, but the lasting memory was Shannon Sharpe's impassioned decrying of a locker room culture that accepts Incognito's use of racial epithets. Studio guests London Fletcher, Jon Jansen, and Bart Scott all shot down the idea that Incognito's behavior is consistent with a normal locker room culture. Fletcher, himself a respected team leader, mentioned that he's played on three teams and never encountered the atmosphere that apparently exists in Miami.

The reaction at NBC (from Tony Dungy, Scott Pioli, and Rodney Harrison) was similar, but it was interesting to get perspective from a coach and general manager. Dungy, like Bill Cowher on the CBS pregame, spoke about creating a positive culture in which teammates support each other. All three were skeptical of blaming Miami head coach Joe Philbin and his staff. Harrison described levels of responsibility: if a problem arises, you try to solve it man-to-man, and team leaders get involved if they notice an issue. Only if players are unable to resolve the situation do they go to the coaches. Dungy echoed that idea, saying that if players didn't come to him with a problem, he assumed there was no problem. He cited Derrick Brooks, Jeff Saturday, and Reggie Wayne as team leaders who helped keep the locker room in order.

Pioli brought up Incognito's reputation as a trouble-maker, going back to his college days. Even most Husker fans don't remember Incognito fondly. During his time at Nebraska, Incognito underwent anger management treatment, got convicted of assault, and was ultimately kicked off the team. He transferred to Oregon and was dismissed before ever appearing in a game. Incognito's self-control issues continued in the NFL, both on and off the field. Pioli said that no team should put a player like Incognito into a leadership role, and that's tough to argue with. You only bring in guys with attitude problems and other issues if you have a team culture that keeps people in line and solves issues in-house.

Perhaps the most interesting perspective was offered by FOX. It's easy to treat Incognito as a bully and Martin as a victim. That's a safe, uncontroversial position to take. But FOX gave Incognito a public platform, airing an interview with Jay Glazer, and Terry Bradshaw spoke about a "Guilty Until Proven Innocent" approach that we've applied to this (and many other) situations. Here, we got Incognito's side of the story. He gave Glazer his phone, and Glazer found over 1,000 texts between Martin and Incognito, including a recent text from Martin that diverted blame from Incognito. Jimmy Johnson was particularly skeptical of Martin's position, wondering if this wasn't a reaction to on-field struggles, diminished playing time, and concern about his NFL future.

On a Monday radio show, the hosts dismissed Glazer's interview as a softball with no follow-up questions. Former Pro Bowl tight end Chris Cooley wondered about Incognito saying he was Martin's best friend on the team, an idea echoed by Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill. That doesn't make me think these two were close; it makes me wonder if Martin had any real friends on the Dolphins. The biggest issue, though, was the two big questions Jay Glazer never asked. If Incognito and Martin are buddies, and if this is all a misunderstanding, why is Incognito suspended by the team, and why hasn't Martin come back?

It's hard to judge a story like this because there's still so much we don't know. Most significantly, we haven't heard directly from Jonathan Martin. For now, my feeling is this ... the Dolphins blew it. If you sign a guy like Richie Incognito, you need to keep an eye on him, not put him in a leadership position. When you take someone with a long history of abusive behavior and give him authority, you let him dictate the atmosphere. It sounds like the Dolphins' locker room culture straddles a thin line between camaraderie and cruelty.

Friendly give-and-take is a normal part of sports culture. You make fun of the bald guy for being bald, you poke the dude who needs to lose a few pounds, you joke about the gap in Michael Strahan's teeth. That's normal. But when a guy doesn't think it's funny, you stop. If the heavy dude is sick and tired of fat jokes and people poking his gut, those things need to stop happening. In Miami, that didn't happen. Incognito acknowledged that in his interview with Glazer, but he shifted the blame toward Martin: why didn't he tell me he was hurting? There's something to that, but it goes against everything we've been told about Miami's locker room culture, especially the subset among those crazy o-linemen.

There are generally two kinds of sensitive people: those who become angry, and those who feel hurt. The angry guys probably fit in with the Dolphins okay, because it sounds like expressing anger and aggression was encouraged in that environment. Besides, if a guy gets really angry, you're going to know about it. But what about a player who feels hurt, who gets sad or depressed? If you create an atmosphere founded on abusive behavior, the sensitive guy who wants to fit in will do his best, so there will be plenty of situations in which he called people names or made inappropriate jokes. Some of those times he probably even enjoyed, because he felt like he was being accepted.

But a hostile, aggressive environment isn't for everyone, and after a while it wears you down. It seems to me that the Dolphins created a culture in which people didn't know when to stop and didn't understand which lines not to cross, and in which players felt like they couldn't ask for help. In macho environments, asking for help can be a sign of weakness that only invites more abuse.

I know some fans, and some players, will defend that kind of environment: if you can't take a few jokes, how can you be tough enough for the NFL? If you flip out during practice when a guy insults you, how can you handle a game situation with opponents talking about your mother? But there's a huge difference between trash-talk from opponents and abuse from people who are supposed to be on your side. I've been around sports my whole life, and I've never seen an athlete who performed better when he was mad at his teammates, or felt like they didn't support him. I've never seen someone up his game when it's the home fans booing. Trash talk and hostile road stadiums can fire you up, but negative reinforcement from your own team never leads to success.

Some degree of rookie hazing happens on every team. Carry the veteran's pads, stand on the table and sing your college fight song, stuff like that. It's not fun, but it's not abuse. Reports are that the Dolphins' rookie hazing went well beyond that, including a $30,000 restaurant bill that Martin had to pay for his teammates. When a prank costs $30 grand, it stops being funny, I think. But it just doesn't seem like the Dolphins have anyone steering the ship. The inmates are running the asylum (and I'm mixing my metaphors). Richie Incognito is charismatic, and he's a good player, but you can't let a guy like that dictate the atmosphere on your team.

There's a lot we still don't know about the situation in Miami. But no one disputes that Incognito used racial slurs and left a voice message most people would consider dramatically over the line. No one disagrees that the Dolphin linemen played mean pranks on Martin, like calling him over to their table and then leaving as soon as he sat down. If being mean is an essential aspect of your locker room culture, that culture needs to change. If you engage with teammates largely through insults and aggression, you're not creating an environment that makes people feel good. If most of your jokes are at someone's expense, you're not supporting each other.

Dolphins players have spoken out almost unanimously in support of Incognito, but no team needs that kind of leadership. It sounds like the locker room culture is warped and twisted: an atmosphere in which bullying is tolerated — maybe even expected — and players don't feel like they can ask for help. There's a problem on that team that goes beyond Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito.

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