At first glance, the Miami Dolphins’ bullying scandal might seem to be just another pinprick in the reputation of a league that had 47 players arrested for crimes ranging from drunken driving to murder in the last off-season alone. But the harassment of a young biracial teammate by a white veteran, replete with slurs, threats, and perhaps even extortion, is shocking in a different way: No previous NFL scandal showed a pro team providing such a negative role model for college and high-school teams struggling with hazing. The harassment of Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin was almost certainly known to some teammates and part of a larger pattern of targeting new players — a situation that implicates the internal culture of the team, and possibly the league.
The accused perpetrator is the 30-year-old guard Richie Incognito, and the National Football League, which is launching an investigation, should be clear that the charges are serious enough to merit a lifetime ban from football. Incognito allegedly sent menacing voicemails and e-mails to Martin, a second-year teammate. They reportedly included the use of an ugly racial slur and vows to “kill you.” Under intense duress, Martin left the team, which Dolphins management initially suggested was the result of stress and illness. After Martin’s agent supplied copies of the voicemails and e-mails, the Dolphins suspended Incognito.
It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise. First, according to a Miami Herald report, Dolphins veterans repeatedly forced rookies to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the veterans’ binges at strip clubs; ESPN reported that Incognito pressured Martin to pay for a $15,000 trip to Las Vegas that Martin didn’t even participate in. Second, Incognito’s past, including four years at Nebraska and four more with the St. Louis Rams, was replete with bad behavior, including fines, seven unnecessary roughness penalties, a screaming confrontation with a former coach, and more. And here’s where the story becomes more familiar: The Dolphins gave Incognito another chance. This is a pattern with NFL teams, who often excuse past transgressions, on and off the field, under the guise of helping a troubled kid turn his life around.
Theoretically, that’s an honorable impulse, but fans can’t help but wonder if coaches are using it to excuse their own responsibility to maintain appropriate standards of conduct. If a team hires a known bad actor, it can’t just leave him to his own devices. Why the Dolphins failed to keep tabs on Incognito is just one of many questions facing the NFL now.