Brian Holloway said he was one week into his National Football League career when he learned that his Stanford University education and academic interests would make him a target.
To cope with verbal abuse from his New England Patriots teammates that often took a racial turn, Holloway set aside his true character to become a better, more enraged football player, he said. It was a person he didn’t particularly like.
“I tapped into a dark side,” Holloway, 54, said yesterday in a telephone interview. “The command to contain your anger and aggression, that dam broke for me. And as an intellectual, it feels extremely uncomfortable allowing that side of human nature to come out.”
His experience from 1981 has made Holloway an admirer of Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin, 24, who showed a different response to bullying when he walked out of the team’s practice facility last week. After Martin’s representatives told the Dolphins of alleged workplace misconduct, Miami suspended offensive lineman Richie Incognito and asked the NFL to conduct a review of the workplace.
Martin’s departure and Incognito’s suspension show that bullying can occur even in an environment where 300-pound men are paid millions of dollars to impose their physical strength, sports psychologists said.
“His status as a football player and adept athlete does not make him immune to needing treatment to overcome the trauma of abuse,” Leah Lagos, a New York-based sports psychologist, said in a telephone interview. “He’s human.”
Holloway said he was fined about $1,500 during his rookie season with the Patriots for reading a legal textbook that the team said was a distraction. He was also ridiculed by teammates for typing LSAT notes during plane rides.
The offensive tackle, who listened to opera for pregame inspiration, said there is an alliance that forms in locker rooms to ostracize players with elite academic backgrounds or eccentric interests.
“When they sense an intellectual is present, they will see that as prey,” Holloway said.
To avoid becoming the hunted, Holloway said he made a conscious change.
“I discovered that I could use that anger and that aggression on the field,” he said. “What was difficult was saying to myself, ‘If this is how and who I need to be in this business, should this business really be part of my future?’”
The Patriots are now under different ownership. Spokesman Stacey James did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
Isaiah Kacyvenski, a former Harvard linebacker who played seven NFL seasons, said he also can relate to Martin through events from his own pro career.
The 36-year-old, who played for the Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams, said he worked to avoid confirming a “preconceived notion of what a Harvard grad was,” and often angered teammates by raising his hand during meetings to ask questions about the way things were being done.
“In no way should a Stanford or Harvard degree get held against you,” said Kacyvenski, who now directs sports business at the biomedical technology company MC10 Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The son of two Harvard graduates, Martin left the Dolphins practice facility on Oct. 28 after other offensive linemen stood up and walked away from the lunch table when he sat down with his food, according NFL.com.
ESPN reported that Incognito, 30, asked Martin to contribute financially last summer to an unofficial team trip to Las Vegas that Martin did not attend. The network also said the Dolphins and the NFL have a copy of a voice message from April in which Incognito used a racial slur and threatened Martin’s life.
David Dunn, Incognito’s agent, has not responded to multiple e-mails and a message left at his office seeking comment on the ESPN reports.
The league has not commented outside of saying it is reviewing the matter. The NFL players’ union said it will insist on a fair investigation for all involved.
The reaction around the NFL has varied. New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle told WFAN, a New York sports radio station, that Martin could have done more to prevent the bullying.
“Was Richie Incognito wrong? Absolutely, but I think the other guy is just as much to blame as Richie, because he allowed it to happen,” he said. “At this level, you’re a man. You’re not a little boy. You’re not a freshman in college.”
Other former players, such as ESPN analysts Tim Hasselbeck and Cris Carter, have said that while hazing is a part of any locker room, the alleged harassment in Miami went too far.
“What they must understand is that hazing, while often portrayed as harmless and a rite of passage, creates a culture and hierarchical system of power that promotes bullying,” Greg Dale, a professor of sports psychology and sports ethics at Duke University, said in a telephone interview.
Incognito withdrew from the University of Nebraska in 2004 after being kicked off the football team for repeated violations of team rules. The Omaha World-Herald reported that Incognito, who had several fights with teammates and opposing players while at Nebraska, in 2003 received anger management treatment at a psychiatric and behavioral hospital in Topeka, Kansas.
After leaving Nebraska, Incognito transferred to the University of Oregon and was kicked off the team after one week. Former Indianapolis Colts General Manager Bill Polian and former Patriots executive Scott Pioli said this week that they took Incognito off their draft boards due to character concerns.
Martin’s decision to walk away enhances the power of his message, according to Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. The group uses sports as a way to begin conversations about social justice, and three years ago assisted the NFL with workplace conduct training.
“Had Martin simply started a fight, a lot of people would have dismissed it as just a locker room isolated incident,” Lebowitz said in a telephone interview. “This is a watershed moment where someone who has made his living in what is considered a sports battlefield, as a gladiator, is saying that emotional abuse matters.”
Holloway now heads a brand consultant company and said he has worked with more than 350 Fortune 500 companies, including Apple Inc. (AAPL), Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) and PepsiCo Inc. (PEP) He was in the news recently after his New York home was vandalized by partying teenagers.
Holloway said that while he often contemplated quitting the NFL, he now regrets making the choice to keep playing with added aggression. He said the transition from football player to husband and father was difficult after his final season in 1988.
“Jonathan is not allowing that side of his humanity to come out because he has more class and character than I had,” Holloway said. “He’s going through a very important dialogue with himself. It has nothing to do with soft or weak, it has everything to do with how he wants his future to be defined.”
-- With assistance from Scott Soshnick, Erik Matuszewski and Aaron Kuriloff in New York. Editors: Dex McLuskey.
To contact the reporters on this story: Eben Novy-Williams in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at email@example.com