The allegations that Richie Incognito bullied fellow Miami Dolphins lineman Jonathan Martin have other National Football League teams taking a closer look at their own locker rooms.
The case, while still being investigated by the NFL, has raised the question of what the Dolphins knew about the situation, and how much players, the coaching staff and management should actually have known before Martin left the team and Incognito was indefinitely suspended.
With the season just past the midway point and the chase for playoff berths entering a key phase, coaches, players and team front offices find themselves looking inward as well as at the next opponent. The Dolphins, for example, play the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the league’s prime-time “Monday Night Football” telecast on Nov. 11, and coach Joe Philbin has called that game his focus while answering reporters’ questions almost exclusively related to the alleged bullying he says he knew nothing about.
“How the Dolphins could not know what was going on in that locker room is just startling, on any level,” Richard Lustberg, founder of the Psychology of Sports website, said in a telephone interview. “It’s management’s responsibility to understand what’s going on within their company.”
Philbin has said he was unaware about any alleged harassment until being contacted by Martin’s representatives after the second-year lineman from Stanford University left the team on Oct. 28. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was among the Dolphins players who told reporters this week that they had no idea there was conflict within the locker room, with Tannehill calling the situation “mind-blowing.”
Tom Coughlin of the New York Giants was among coaches to address their teams this week about the need for respect among players.
“Vigilance is a key issue there,” said Coughlin, who then cited a quote from a former U.S. secretary of defense. “I’m reminded of Donald Rumsfeld when he said, ‘You manage by setting boundaries with freedom in the middle.’ And the principles, if you know the quote, are freedom, commitment, trust and teamwork, but you cannot violate those principles.”
There’s no timetable for the NFL’s investigation, and it’s unclear exactly what happened involving Martin, 24, a second-round draft pick in 2012, and Incognito, 30, a nine-year NFL veteran who was kicked off the football team at the University of Nebraska and cut by the St. Louis Rams for issues that included run-ins with teammates, opposing players and coaches.
ESPN has reported that Incognito asked Martin to contribute $15,000 last summer to an unofficial team trip to Las Vegas. In April, Incognito left him an expletive-filled voice message that contained a racial slur and threats of physical violence, Martin's lawyer David Cornwell said in an e-mailed statement last night.
David Dunn, Incognito’s agent, hasn’t responded to multiple e-mails and a message left at his office seeking comment on the ESPN reports.
Former Dolphins offensive lineman Lydon Murtha, who played with both Incognito and Martin, wrote in a column yesterday for Sports Illustrated that Martin had verbally committed and then backed out of the Las Vegas trip after it was booked and paid for -- from hotels and private jet to show tickets. The veterans, including Incognito, asked that Martin, perceived as “standoffish and shy” by the rest of the offensive linemen, pay his share, Murtha said.
Other Dolphins players supported Incognito this week, with Tannehill calling the 2012 Pro Bowl selection the “best teammate I could ask for.” Tannehill also said Incognito and Martin were friends who spent time together off the field.
“Does he like to give guys a hard time? Yes. Does he like to pester guys and have fun? Yes,” Tannehill said of Incognito. “But he brought a lot of laughter and a lot of cohesiveness. To be put in a situation where everyone is attacking the locker room, saying it’s such a bad place, such a bad culture, no leadership to stand up, that’s not the situation. No one knew there was a situation to be stopped.”
A key component is the so-called locker room culture, said former NFL coach Brian Billick.
“You can see from the players, they feel like they’re the ones under attack right now,” said Billick, who won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens and is now an analyst for Fox. “They’re trying to justify the actions of two of their team members that interact with one another in a way that, yeah, if you look at it from the outside, people might question it and not understand it. That has more to do with their lack of a filter to understand how a locker room works.”
After Martin left the team, Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland received a phone call from one of Martin’s agents, Kenny Zuckerman, to complain about Incognito’s behavior, according to NBC Sports’ website Pro Football Talk. Ireland then said that Martin should physically confront Incognito, Pro Football Talk said, citing unidentified people familiar with the situation. Zuckerman hasn’t returned messages seeking comment. The Dolphins said they won’t comment until after the review process
Lustberg, the sports psychologist, said everybody connected to the Dolphins’ situation shares some fault and that the story has gone beyond one about sports to a socially charged discourse about what is and isn’t acceptable within NFL locker rooms.
“Jonathan Martin was unable, for whatever reason, to cope with all this happening to him,” Lustberg said. “In terms of Richie Incognito, he either misjudged Martin’s mental status or misjudged how -- if all these texts come out at the end of the day and you’re not ready to face how it appears, you’re in trouble. He can say, ‘I didn’t mean it; It wasn’t meant in that context.’ But once you put it in writing it’s up for scrutiny and up for discussion.”
Former New York Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason said yesterday on his daily radio show on WFAN in New York that the public is mistakenly trying to apply “logical thinking from the corporate world” to the locker room.
“We’re all kind of jumping to conclusions and I’m guilty of doing the same thing,” Esiason said. “Nobody is approving of being a bully, nobody is saying that’s OK, nobody is saying the language in which Richie Incognito was talking to Jonathan Martin is OK. But again, I have to understand the context in which those conversations took place and the conversations between the two men for the past 18 months.”
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, in his 13th professional season, said that all NFL locker rooms have players with different backgrounds and personalities.
“You will see guys fighting on the field and 30 minutes later they are in the cafeteria having lunch together,” Brees told reporters this week. “There is stuff, especially when you are in a competitive atmosphere, things will happen and if you just take it out of context it’s hard to understand or grasp.”
The Giants and Seattle Seahawks are among NFL teams that employ sports psychologists to counsel and interact with players. After the Miami situation, more clubs may follow suit, said Greg Dale, a professor of sports psychology and sports ethics at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He also said in a telephone interview the most significant changes need to take place within the locker room.
“If coaches aren’t willing to talk more about team culture and what’s acceptable for us,” Dale said, “then all the training in the world isn’t going to make a difference.”