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Patrick Hruby

Is It Unfair to Expect NFL Players to Behave Like Grown-Ups?

The Atlantic Sports Roundtable on the Richie Incognito mess

The Atlantic Online

In the latest edition of the Atlantic Sports Roundtable, we discuss Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito's alleged harassment of teammate Jonathan Martin. Is holding the National Football League to the same standard as any other workplace an exercise in futility?

Patrick Hruby: ... NFL locker rooms long have housed a culture of hazing, pranking, and name-calling. Rivers and eddies of disrespect, all flowing one way: Top to bottom, from veterans to rookies. Newcomers have to carry equipment, dress up in ridiculous outfits, buy food, and generally take crap in order to be fully accepted by the team and tribe. Why? Because that's the way things always have been done. Because, as The New York Times puts it, "most incidents come with the tacit, unsupervised approval of coaches and executives, who see the pranks as a rite of passage, a worthy bit of team-building and character-strengthening."

I'm not sure this makes sense. I don't see how being demeaned in ways big and small—via a silly, penis-shaped haircut or a string of nasty, vile texts—strengthens character or fosters team spirit. I don't get why a group of adults in a supposedly professional environment has a line to be crossed in the first place, why some indignities are seen as positive and necessary. I read about Incognito, and his transgressions over said line, and I can't help but wonder if NFL locker rooms are full of insecure boy-men who are desperately trying to establish their places in an unspoken pecking order, who have yet to learn the childhood lessons that the best way to earn respect is to give it, and that dignity shouldn't work on a sliding scale ...

Hampton Stevens: ... the key difference here is between hazing and harassment. The latter is always unacceptable, of course. Hazing, though, serves a purpose because, at a very primal level, we care more about things when we suffer to get them. Despite the sniffing condescension of The New York Times, hazing in safe and limited doses can be a perfectly useful part of team-building. Pranks and weird rituals build team spirit, the locker room functioning as a sort of boot camp, where teammates demonstrate emotional toughness, earn trust, or simply learn how their teammates will react under pressure.

That sort of thing may not be necessary with jobs like ours, Patrick, but the NFL is not your typical workplace. Not much that goes on in a locker room would be acceptable in the modern corporate American workplace. Walking around naked, for instance.

One of the appeals of the game is that it makes extreme psychological demands. Players must act like savages on the field and gentlemen off it. Incognito, clearly, has never been able to draw that line, as reflected by his conflict-riddled career. He used the cover of a locker room as a way to bully. The fault lies with him, and the Miami coaches and staff who failed to either notice or care what was happening ...

Jake Simpson: ... Like the military or law enforcement, sports teams are built around an understood hierarchy, a pecking order based primarily on length of time served. Rookies in the NBA have had to carry their teammates' bags and make much-needed drugstore runs for a veteran for decades. Just ask Jalen Rose. In the NFL, star Cowboys wideout Dez Bryant was once a rookie who got stuck with an absurd $54,896 dinner tab in 2010.

Martin was subject to similar extortion, forking over $15,000 for an offensive linemen's trip to Las Vegas that he didn't even go on. Now reports are surfacing that Dolphins coaches may have asked Incognito to "toughen up" Martin after he missed voluntary offseason workouts (dictionary note to the league: voluntary = not required). And coach Joe Philbin laughed when he saw the penis haircuts inflicted on Martin and other rookies, according to the Times. The facts, and the parties involved, speak for themselves.

I'm sure the vast majority of the shenanigans that occur in NFL locker rooms are the "juvenile rituals" you mention, Hampton. But what about the one percent or even the 0.1 percent that are truly harassment and hate? Martin reportedly was being tormented for more than a year before finally snapping, and even then he didn't immediately share his story or go to team officials. He went home to his family, where he felt safe. The league's code of silence dictates that what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room ...

Read the full article at the Atlantic online