The easy thing is to say the NFL is a bad sport run and played by bad people who make their living on the edge and be done with it; that it’s a violent sport of non-guaranteed contracts where oblivion is a gleam in a linebacker’s eye.
That – plus gambling – is why people watch a sport with so much down time, meetings and overthinking. It’s why Toronto Mayor Rob Ford wears an NFL tie.
And that won’t change because of the bullying and hazing allegations surrounding the Miami Dolphins and Richie Incognito, who was reprehensible long before reportedly leaving threatening, racist voice messages for teammate Jonathan Martin or holding him emotionally hostage by demanding Martin fall in lockstep and unquestioningly buy meals for veterans, or help fund excursions to Las Vegas.
Incognito was twice suspended from the University of Nebraska football team and convicted of misdemeanour assault before transferring to Oregon. He was cut before playing a game for the Ducks, but was still taken in the third round of the NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams, where he racked up $85,000 (U.S.) in fines, publicly mocked the NFL organization and its fans, and was let loose only after getting into a sideline altercation with Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo in 2009.
Incognito – who was referred to as a “tool” in a column written by respected St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz – resurfaced with the Dolphins in 2010, and was one of six players voted on to a “leadership council” by teammates before this season.
Joe Philbin, the Dolphins head coach, had a leadership council last season, too, but he cut, traded or failed to re-sign all of the players on – which probably tells you all you need to know about the Dolphins and Philbin.
Martin took a leave of absence from the Dolphins after an incident in which a group of teammates left a dining room table when Martin sat down. It was, for Martin, the final straw in a series of perceived and real slights that included voicemails Martin turned over to the Dolphins and NFL Players Association.
The franchise originally denied it was under investigation for what might loosely be termed workplace violations. But within hours, it was forced to come clean, and now the NFL finds itself where it never likes to be: In the public eye, loosely attached to an issue of pressing social concern.
Normally, the NFL’s approach to issues – Bountygate, spousal abuse, gun play, the usual toxic NFL gangster mix – is to let the weight of the league and its marketing might simply squash the matter (or in the case of concussions and health issues of its former players, simply cut a cheque).
Plus, the NFL has no shortage of excuse makers in the media (not all of them former players or coaches), so rest assured they will be out spinning, talking about how this ought not to stand and doing their best to paint the matter as an incident reflective of a particular locker-room culture. Already, they are subtly detaching the issue of bullying from the issue of hazing by pointing out Martin is not a rookie – which is important because it makes it easier to work in the whole if-Martin-was-a-man-he-would-have-gone-after-Incognito angle.
I hope Martin gets help and finds happiness. Part of me would even like to Incognito to do the same, if the stories about him being bullied as a youth because of his weight are true, although given how the game of football has failed him time and time again – making him somebody else’s problem until eventually he becomes society’s problem – I’m not confident.
I’d like to think this is a teachable moment when it comes to the matter of bullying, as is anything that sheds light on matters that often get taken care of by some unwritten code of conduct or, worse, by an inability to find a pathway to real help. And I’d like to think NFL fans will spend half as much time this weekend thinking about Jonathan Martin as they will their fantasy team. But I know they won’t.
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