Hazing has forever been tradition in organized sports. From having younger players carry the team’s pads back after a brutal football practice to having rookies carry Gatorade and sunflower seeds in princess backpacks to MLB bullpens, humor at the expense of younger players has a defined place in sports culture.
In the MLB, hazing has historically stopped at just that: humor. The worst thing a rookie might have to endure is wearing a costume of some sort on a plane ride after teammates switched out their street clothes in the locker room. Embarrassing, to be sure, but nothing harmful.
Contrast that to the NFL and you’ve got yourself a problem. The Miami Dolphins suspended guard Richie Incognito indefinitely on Tuesday for derogatory and threatening texts/calls to then-rookie lineman Jonathan Martin.
ESPN reported that a transcript of the messages, which have been sifted through by both Dolphins and NFL officials, included the following message from Incognito to Martin. “Hey, wassup, you half n—– piece of s—. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] s— in your f—ing mouth. [I’m going to] slap your f—ing mouth. [I’m going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. F— you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”
The altercation is not Incognito’s first: he was waived from the St. Louis Rams after he got into a verbal altercation with then-Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo and was suspended for the entirety of the 2004 season at the University of Nebraska for off-field incidents.
Incognito’s actions, far beyond antics or hazing at this point, forced Martin to take a leave of absence from the Dolphins after the persistent brutality he has reportedly faced since joining the team.
The Dolphins have been quick to react to the exposure of the incidents; a team source told the Miami Herald of Incognito, “He’s done. There are procedures in place and everyone wants to be fair. The NFL is involved. But from a club perspective, he will never play another game here.”
And yet, when Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter took to the field and the clubhouse to find out player and personnel reaction to Incognito’s actions, there was still a backlash against Martin, of all people.
“Said one personnel man [who’s not alone]: instead of being a man and confronting him, ‘[Martin] acted like a coward and told like a kid,’” Trotter tweeted on Tuesday. “’You handle it in the house, and keep moving.’”
While the comments were not representative of all players or personnel, the truth is that there is an ugly culture in the NFL (substantially more so than in any other professional sport) that has reared its head for decades, and nothing is being done to stop it.
It’s almost understandable, really. Football, more so than any other professional sport, is a game based on masculinity. You need it to survive, as NFL players will pounce on anything they perceive as weakness.
Players are often forced to “have skin like an armadillo” and downplay abuse of any variety off the field, says former Baltimore Raven Brendon Ayanbadejo. “I understand you need to be tough on the football field, and you have to take coaching advice and critiques as a tool to make you a better football player and not as a personal attack,” he wrote on MSN Fox Sports.
“But there needs to be a better way to condition athletes to let them know that this mentality ends when you walk off the football field and when you leave the meeting room.”
In April, following NBA player Jason Collins coming out as gay, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent NFL teams a memo reminding them of the league’s anti-discrimination policy. In doing so, Goodell made it clear that discrimination based on sexual orientation would not be tolerated in his league.
Goodell is generally known as a no-nonsense commissioner, and if he so chooses he could probably eliminate hazing from the game by holding offenders personally responsible for their actions. If repercussions are not handed out, consent of the actions of the hazers is the only other option. And Roger Goodell has been consenting for a long time.
The jury is still out on what exactly the NFL will do with Incognito and his teammates, but the fact of the matter is, the time to end hazing in the NFL is upon us, and the ball is in Goodell’s court.
The actions of the NFL over the coming days, weeks and months will be telling as to whether the game of football can take a step out of the 20th century and join us in a progressive era. Until the league moves on, they continue to endorse the cyclical, barbaric treatment of rookies, the very course of whose lives they have changed by bringing them into the NFL.