Hazing and Bullies a Fact of NFL Life, but Are They Necessary Evils?

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Hazing and Bullies a Fact of NFL Life, but Are They Necessary Evils?

Before Michael Strahan became a television star, he was a damn good football player. Next year, he will likely go into the Hall of Fame. He's seen everything.

Or at least he thought he had. Then came the bullying scandal in Miami.

"We never did anything like that," Strahan said. 

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The hazing on the New York Giants during the Strahan era, 1993-2007, consisted of having the rookies bring breakfast sandwiches on Friday and donuts and coffee on Saturday. It was simple. Non-belligerent.

Chester Pitts was also a good football player. He was an offensive lineman for almost a decade, mostly in Houston. It was the same there as it was with the Giants—and almost every other team in the NFL.

The rookies sang to the team. They might get taped to a goalpost. Or the veterans might make them wear a really ugly suit for a day. Or sit at the very front of a theater for a movie. Maybe they had to get into a cold tub.

"I had the rookies buy me a set of steak knives from Del Frisco's once," Pitts laughed. "It's not about punking someone. ... It's about respect for the men who came before you. You learn by humbling yourself and learning from the vets.

"Real offensive linemen don't behave the way (Richie Incognito) did."

News emerging from the Incognito saga continues to send shockwaves through the NFL world. It's a different horror story daily. Sometimes hourly. But the key to it all is its origins. 

In interviews with a number of players, what's become clear is that what's occurred in Miami is far from the norm. It's a type of bullying the league was known for decades ago, but has since been all but eradicated.

The story is immensely complicated. It ventures into areas of race and status and exposes the underbelly of the sport. While situations like Miami's may just be cases of things getting out of hand, there's a reason some Dolphins players are backing Incognito, or saying hazing is needed. It's because of locker room dynamics the average person can't understand.

Al Bello / Getty Images 1995

"There is a guy like Incognito in every NFL locker room," said Jamal Anderson, an Atlanta Falcons running back from 1994-2001 and one-time Pro Bowler. "The truth is, you want a guy who is nasty and can count on when you're walking down that dark alley alone."

Anderson's point: Every team has an enforcer. That guy who pushes teammates beyond the norm, and sometimes does so in an uncomfortable manner. Players need pushing because the violence in football can be so overwhelming that it can lead to cowardice. This is why you see so many Dolphins players, including African-American ones, defending Incognito despite the fact he's alleged to be on a tape using racial slurs.

Incognito was one of the players handed the bad-guy role. He might have even accepted it when other guys wouldn't, Anderson said. In NFL locker room dynamics, he gets a pass for alleged vile behavior. It's as simple as this: Incognito is a bad guy, but he's their bad guy. He's actually cherished for accepting that role even when he tosses around racial slurs. 

It's obvious, however, that Incognito took his enforcing duties too far. Or was the wrong person to be doing it in the first place. This is why he's basically been kicked off every team he ever played on.

There have been a few moments across the sport when the rookie tax—rookies buying the veterans dinner— was taken to an extreme. One player said the rookie tax has become outrageous in places like Dallas and Philadelphia over the past few years. When Strahan played, rookie dinners were minimal, or just a bunch of breakfast sandwiches. In past years, though, players say Cowboys and Eagles rookies paid for dinner tabs that totaled up to $40,000.

Still, most of the hazing wasn't that ugly. Anderson said they would wake up rookies in the middle of the night and "powder them," but that was as vicious as it would get. 

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The other element to this is the different personalities from position to position. Offensive linemen are considered among the craziest of all the players.

"Offensive linemen always had their own, different ways—unlike any other position group," said one former defensive veteran. "They're strange birds."

The veteran described a scene where a group of offensive linemen were in the shower, and the joking degraded into the players urinating on another. This, the player said, was how the offensive linemen built camaraderie.

There are simply things that go on in an NFL locker room that are almost impossible for anyone to understand.

One of the biggest aspects of this story is the fight between the NFL's past and its present. The NFL has tried to end hazing, or at least the brutal aspects of it, while teams quietly relied on players like Incognito to push players into uncomfortable places they would otherwise not go.

One veteran showed how the hazing cycle can be broken. He's a popular player who has been in the league for years. He was hazed as a rookie: IcyHot in his underwear, thrown in cold tubs, had his clothes frozen, bought breakfast for the veterans every Saturday, and once paid $5,000 for a dinner out with teammates.

He, in turn, never hazed others. Why? "I always believed you are defined as a man," he said, "by the way you treat people who can't help you."

There was a story from almost 15 years ago in which New Orleans rookies were brutalized from hazing. The rookies, unable to see with pillowcases on their heads, were forced to run a gauntlet of veterans and were hit in the face and body with bags of coins. Some players had their noses shattered.

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

We've come a long way from that, but what happened in Miami harkens back to those days. That's why the NFL is expected to act swiftly and harshly in response to this particular case.

Anderson remembers a rookie who, before the Falcons played San Francisco and Jerry Rice, bragged how he was going to stop Rice. Then, in the first half, Rice torched him. At halftime, the player was at his locker, crying.

Half the team gave him support. Other players blasted him. Mocked him. Humiliated him.

This was their way of motivating him. This is the NFL that's impossible for some to understand.

 

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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