Miami Dolphins Hazing Scandal Highlights Bullying in the NFL

Well, what a shocker: hazing and workplace abuse have come to the NFL. After a widely publicized incident on the Miami Dolphins team, the league is being forced to seriously reconsider what counts as good-natured ribbing — and which behaviors cross the line into serious hazing that damages intra-team relationships. The question is being raised after two Miami Dolphins teammates' experiences, veteran Richie Incognito and rookie offensive tackle Jonathan Martin, were brought to light. Martin left the team abruptly after what is apparently a pattern of poor treatment by Incognito.

One of the pieces of evidence given to the Dolphins about the relationship between Martin and Incognito was a voicemail that Incognito allegedly left for the rookie. In it, Incognito reportedly uses racial slurs against Martin, who is biracial. "Hey, wassup, you half (expletive) piece of (expletive)," the transcript of the voicemail reportedly reads. "I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. I'll (expletive) in your (expletive) mouth. I'm gonna slap your (expletive) mouth, I'm gonna slap your real mother across the face (laughter). (Expletive) you, you're still a rookie. I'll kill you."

It’s a tale of two opposites: on one side, there’s a loud, obnoxious Incognito. Raised in New Jersey and from the University of Nebraska, he was eventually suspended for “incidents off the field.” On the field, he was pushy and violent: Incognito “built a résumé that included games with multiple personal fouls and a $50,000 fine for head-butting.”

On the other side, there’s Martin. His pedigree is dutifully recounted in the Times piece: he chose Stanford over becoming a fourth-generation Harvard graduate, and studied classics in college. His father is a dean at a California state school, and his mother is an assistant general counsel for Toyota. Teammates from Stanford say that he is “phenomenal,” and that they’ve “never heard him say a bad word, a bad thing, to or for anybody in my entire time at Stanford.”

It’s a battle of David and Goliath, only both of them are 300-something pound dudes.

That last bit is exactly why the use of the language of bullying around this story is so perplexing. (Even the New York Times image accompanying its article on the story is housed at an address ending with BULLY.html.) These aren’t school-aged children calling each other names on the playground; you can’t call their parents and ask them to sit the kids down and explain how to behave. No, this is straight up harassment and abuse.

On any team, there’s a degree of ribbing that new players get. But there’s a difference between making rookies put away training equipment (acceptable, bonding) and leaving threatening voicemails (unacceptable, harassment). Even the other much-discussed NFL tradition of having rookies pick up multi-thousand-dollar restaurant tabs might fall on the acceptable side of the line. But when grown men can’t tell the difference between the totally acceptable and the totally unacceptable? Well, let’s not sugar coat what it is.

“Since April 10, 2012, when the players first came here and I was the head coach, every decision I have made and every decision we have done in this facility has been done with one thing in mind and that is to help our players and our organization reach their full potential,” head coach Joe Philbin said Monday. "Any type of conduct or behavior that detracts from that objective is not acceptable and is not tolerated."

That’s good. After Martin abruptly left the team’s facility last week, calls have erupted for a full overview of the team’s hazing rituals and conduct. The Dolphins have promised to cooperate in a “comprehensive” and “objective” review, and indefinitely suspended Richie Incognito. Teammates apparently welcome Martin’s return, if and when he feels up to it. “It’s about winning,” one of them told USA Today. “If you’re going to help us win, then OK.”

"If the review shows that this is not a safe atmosphere, I will take whatever measure necessary to ensure that it is," Philbin said. "I have that obligation to the players that I coach on a daily basis and I will do that.” That’s awesome, coach. Too bad you can’t babysit the players who are adult children 24 hours a day.

The good news is that it looks like the Miami Dolphins have — even if it’s late in the game — decided that Incognito is too toxic to be on the team. The Miami Herald reports that Incognito is gone from the team for good.