Blaming the victim in NFL bullying case

8:08 AM, Nov 6, 2013   |    comments
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NFL logo from the Associated Press.

(USA TODAY) - Richie Incognito stands accused of bullying Jonathan Martin and, as you might expect, is almost universally condemned. But, as you might not expect, some NFL players criticize Martin, too.

The two Miami Dolphins offensive linemen made national headlines when Martin walked away from the team and Incognito was suspended indefinitely for conduct detrimental to the team after Martin's representatives turned over a voice mail with racially charged threats.

Denver Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton thinks Martin broke the code of the locker room by leaving it.

"Everybody in the NFL knows that when you're a young guy and when you're with the O-line you've got it the hardest," Knighton says. "I mean, that's been going on for a while. ... I don't know where they crossed the line at; maybe (Incognito) said something personal.

"I feel like, as players, when it is player-to-player, it can be handled as players. It can be addressed. I don't think (Martin) should have gone outside the team and expressed how things are going in the locker room."

That's not only a player perspective. Duke professor of sports psychology and sports ethics Greg Dale thinks it is a male perspective.

"I was teaching my class at Duke to a group of undergrads, and we were talking about this very thing in class," Dale says. "And the comments from several of the young men were, 'Well, he really needed to man up. He's a man, and you've got to handle that on your own. He shouldn't have walked away.' And that's the core of the problem right there."

Hank Nuwer, associate professor of journalism at Franklin College in Indiana, has written multiple books on hazing, including Wrongs of Passage. He says it is common in athletic hazing cases to blame the victim.

"Either he doesn't measure up or he's a sissy for reporting it," Nuwer says. "Or he doesn't understand that Incognito was just trying to toughen him up. It's always put that way."

Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway thinks what some style as bullying is really more like bonding. 

"The reality is, as a guy coming in, you have to understand the environment you're in and take it with a grain of salt, be able to dish it out as well as take it and just become part of that group," he says. "I don't know the situation (in Miami), what went on. But it happens. It happens all over the place.

"I think 'bullying' is strongly overused at every age in this country, starting at my 6-year-old. People are just rude. People are mean. I wouldn't call it bullying. I think it's just being ridiculous. But as a grown man, it's more of a brotherhood, ball-busting mentality than I think we're directly coming at somebody."

Crossing the line

Traditional hazing in the NFL can range from having rookies carry shoulder pads to the practice field to having them sing college fight songs in the lunchroom to taping them to the goal posts after practice. New Orleans Saints rookies were asked to put pillowcases over their heads during training camp in 1998 and run through dorm hallways while 20 to 30 veterans hit them, some with a bag of coins.

Rich Gannon, a former league MVP, says rookies are often asked to foot the bill for restaurant meals while veterans order bottles of rare champagne and ring up cumulative tabs of $30,000 to $40,000, a high-priced version of the playground bully who steals your lunch money.

"You hear about (bullying) on the school yard, and now you're talking about grown men," former all-pro safety Brian Dawkins says. "A football team is like a family. You spend so much time together. You don't want your teammate to feel like an outcast."

Nuwer says Florida has the nation's toughest law against hazing by students but a flaw in the law is it doesn't mention adults.

"But we are talking the workplace" in this case, Nuwer says. "As glamorous a job as an NFL player is, it's still the workplace. And this goes beyond hazing to a kind of harassment that technically could be violating certain labor laws if it holds true. (Or) it could fall under a hate crimes category for use of the N-word."

Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, who is in his 16th NFL season, says Incognito's apparent use of that word is beyond the pale.

"Obviously, it shows racism, bigotry, to leave a voice mail like that," Fletcher says. "He probably said that to the guy's face. He was very bold. ... That wasn't hazing. That was flat bullying. ... That right there was beyond the scope of anything I've seen that guys have done to rookies."

Gannon says he saw bullying in locker rooms in high school and less so in college and at his first pro stop in Minnesota.

"Then I went to Kansas City where I didn't see any of it," he says. "Marty Schottenheimer created a great situation where older guys mentored younger guys. Then I went out to Oakland, and I almost got sick to my stomach at how bad it was."

He describes a time when a group of defensive players grabbed then-Raiders tight end Doug Jolley, taped him to the ground and covered him with Icy Hot and baby powder while punching him.

"I walked in, in front of this, and I flipped out," Gannon says. "Guys were cheering and laughing."

Gannon says he stood up and put a stop to it: "There wasn't anybody else who had enough passion and character who was simply going to say, 'You know what? This is wrong. And it has to stop.'"

The trouble is that some players see some forms of hazing as little more than good clean fun.

"I've never had a situation where it got to the point where you needed to step in," Fletcher says. "Sometimes rookies kind of take things the wrong way. You might throw their clothes in the cold tub. They may get offended about that, so you have to calm the situation down. This was something beyond that."

Need for leadership

The best way to stop locker room bullying, Gannon says, is having strong team leaders. The Dolphins had a six-member leadership council - and Incognito was a member.

"When (Broncos quarterback) Peyton Manning stands in front of the room, it's like E.F. Hutton, everybody listens," Gannon says. "There's not enough guys who have the balls to stand in front of a group of 60 other men to say, 'You know what? You guys are wrong. This has to stop.'

"But when you go up to that podium, the minute you do that, you're going to have half the guys in the room go, 'What he said is dead-on right, and I'm going to support him.' And the other half of the guys are going to go, 'Who's this guy? What's he talking about? What gives him the right to say that?' That's the problem."

USA TODAY

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