It’s easy to paint Richie Incognito as the villain. And it’s easy to paint Jonathan Martin as the hero. Incognito, the Dolphins left guard, is the vile, racist meathead who personifies everything that’s wrong with the NFL’s “boys will be boys” mentality. And Martin, the left tackle, is the thoughtful, misunderstood Stanford man who had the chutzpah to say “enough is enough,” leave the team, and expose Incognito as a hate-filled bully.
It’s the perfect story for “Good Morning America” and CNN to teach parents and children about the dangers of hazing and bullying. And knowing what I know about Incognito and Martin after covering the Dolphins last year and being in that locker room, the story was easy to believe.
Incognito, then an eight-year NFL veteran and one of the Dolphins’ vocal leaders, picked on a lot of people, especially Martin, then a rookie. Incognito thinks he’s being playful, but he often crosses the line. When the story broke this season that Martin had left the team because of bullying, I immediately thought, “Richie finally pushed him over the edge.”
Incognito willingly plays the caricature of the over-amped jock, and he’s the pledgemaster of the Dolphins’ frat house locker room (a sign at his locker says he hates two things: “taxes and rookies”). Martin, who spent nearly every waking moment during the season alongside Incognito, was a frequent target of his barbs. Martin seemed to take the ribbing in stride, but you never know what’s bubbling underneath.
But the more I follow the story, talk to sources in Miami, and hear current and former Dolphins almost unanimously support Incognito, it makes me wonder whether perhaps there is no hero in this story — only two teammates embroiled in an ugly mess that could end both of their NFL careers.
The story is being presented in black-and-white terms — Incognito is a racist bully, Martin a helpless victim — but I wonder whether the key color in this is green.
Martin left the Dolphins on Oct. 28, a day after they lost to the Patriots, and went home to California to be with family and seek counseling. Later in the week, it was reported that the Dolphins would put Martin on the “non-football illness” list so they could free up his roster spot.
When a player is placed on the NFI list — and this is important — his team doesn’t have to pay his weekly salary. Martin, making a little more than $607,000 this year in base salary, would have forfeited $35,733 for every week he was on the NFI list.
So yes, it’s fair to ask: Did Martin go AWOL without realizing the financial consequences, and now his people — most likely his agents — are trying to clean up the mess?
Certainly, Martin was teased and picked on a lot by his teammates. And there’s no defending Incognito here. But while I’m certain that Martin had had enough of Incognito’s wisecracks, I’m skeptical that was the sole reason he left the team.
Perhaps the prospect of being switched off left tackle before the Patriots game, after hearing from fans and media since March that he wasn’t good enough to play the position, played a part. Perhaps the team’s four-game losing streak contributed to his stress. Perhaps there are a number of behind-the-scenes issues in the locker room and in his private life that we don’t know about.
But none of those reasons would help Martin keep earning his game checks. Painting him as the victim of racism and bullying, however . . . ?
The Dolphins publicly stood behind Incognito and called reports of bullying “speculation” well into Sunday afternoon. Then on Sunday evening, the team got hold of at least one voicemail and some text messages from Incognito to Martin, reversed course, and suspended Incognito indefinitely.
The story got amplified Monday when Martin’s camp made public the content of a voicemail. The voicemail, presumably sent to Martin in April, has Incognito using all kinds of vile, hateful language, including disgusting uses of the N-word.
Once the content of the voicemail hit the media, that may have ended Incognito’s football career. Who wouldn’t side with Martin for leaving the team?
But something doesn’t sit right with the public airing of the voicemails, and the timing of it all. Did Martin purposely save the voicemails, or is he the type of kid who has 75 messages on his phone? And after all the nasty things Incognito said to Martin, the final straw was a relatively harmless cafeteria prank last week, in which teammates switched tables when Martin sat down to join them at lunch?
Perhaps the hazing Martin endured was so intense that he felt he had no recourse other than to leave the team and expose Incognito. Or are Martin and his agents perhaps using Incognito as a scapegoat to justify Martin leaving the team while still collecting his salary?
If so, Martin’s camp picked the perfect guy to blame. Incognito was once voted the NFL’s dirtiest player, he has few friends outside the Miami locker room, and now he is reported as using racist epithets.
You’ll notice the Dolphins did not put Martin on the NFI list, and he’s still drawing his salary. The team’s PR nightmare would have been even worse had it withheld pay from a player perceived to be the victim of racist bullying.
But I think it’s hardly a coincidence that nearly every current and former teammate has supported Incognito, and I don’t think it’s just because of the “meathead football mentality.” Every player in the league faces enormous pressures — money problems, family problems, injury problems, mental problems, and the pressures of having to fight for your job every day.
Many players in the Dolphins locker room aren’t angry that Martin snapped — they think he isn’t taking responsibility for his problems and is just trying to blame it all on Incognito.
“I think I can relate and I can speak on this because I was at a point where I was done with the NFL and I needed to take a break,” former running back Ricky Williams, who himself abruptly left the Dolphins in 2004 and was Incognito’s teammate in 2010, said in a radio interview Tuesday. “But unlike Jonathan, I didn’t have to find a scapegoat or someone to blame.
“I didn’t have to bring anyone else down when I found out that I just couldn’t handle what I was going through at the time.”
One good thing that has come out of this is that a microscope has now been put on the NFL’s locker room culture and some of the ridiculous rituals that are commonplace between rookies and veterans. Players shouldn’t be forced to play “credit card roulette” to pay for the dinner bill, as Martin complained about on Twitter, and a group of rookies shouldn’t be forced to split a $30,000 dinner bill, as they were this year in Miami. Players shouldn’t have their heads and eyebrows shaved, which happens on every team (even the Patriots).
“It’s good that these issues are now coming to the forefront,” former Jets and Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards told me Wednesday. “It’s just a shame that it takes an incident like this for it to happen.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.