"In a locker room, what's overboard?"
Former NFL receiver Isaac Bruce posed that rhetorical question to me in response to being asked if Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito ever went overboard in dealing with rookies or younger players on a team.
Incognito is accused of bullying and harassing Dolphins teammate and fellow offensive lineman Jonathan Martin. Martin left the team Oct. 30 and had checked himself into a hospital to be treated for emotional distress before going home to California to be with his family.
Now, he has hired longtime sports attorney David Cornwell, who alleges that there are more shoes to drop when it comes to these charges.
Bruce, a member of the Rams (both in Los Angeles and in St. Louis) from 1994-2007, played with Incognito for three seasons. In many ways, Bruce seems like the antithesis of the type of locker room subculture that Incognito now publicly represents.
Even as news comes out that Incognito held offensive line meetings in strip clubs and sexually assaulted a volunteer at a charity event, Bruce is retired from football, spending his days going door to door asking people if they know Jesus Christ is their Lord and savior.
The two men could not be more different, yet Bruce understands him perfectly: "Certain conversations are brought up in the locker room that would be appalling outside of the locker room."
Bruce made it clear—over and over again—that the locker room subculture is a place that outsiders just can't understand. While not necessarily holding it up as a positive or negative thing, Bruce inferred that the dynamic is, at least, normal.
Even that word...
The smoking gun in the Incognito bullying case against Martin is a voicemail transcript obtained by the NFL in which Incognito appeared to threaten both Martin and his family, referring to his teammate as a "half-n*****" and threatening to defecate in Martin's mouth.
Bruce is right; that does sound appalling. Yet I was even more shocked to hear that a black man nicknamed "The Reverend" throughout his NFL career wasn't nearly as dismayed.
"Did it shock me to hear it? No, it did not shock me. I've heard it in a joking matter and in negative connotations as well. We’re talking about in a locker room. A lot of guys in there might just laugh it off...Am I for or against the word? No, I’m not for it or against it."
As a member of the media, I've been in plenty of locker rooms, but I realize that those spaces are a different place when the media leaves. That said, I have a very different response to the word. Even as a white man, the word sickens me. It's a visceral response borne in me at a young age.
My father grew up in the 1940s and '50s in a household that could be described, at best, as racially insensitive. Even in my childhood, my father's side of the family still referred to black people as "coloreds" and seemed to look down on them—at least, as it seemed to a young boy at the time.
Meanwhile, my father, who had gone from working in ministry as a Lutheran minister to law enforcement and eventually corrections, ran two cell blocks and suddenly found himself face to face with many people who were not only black (as well as white, Hispanic, Asian, etc.) but also criminals. Yet my father also worked with these men through their recovery of substance abuse and saw them first as men, broken just like he once had been.
Needless to say, he heard that offending word on a daily basis as part of the prison subculture. If he heard it at home, there would be consequences. I once saw an older sibling's friend removed from my house because he said that word—not asked to leave, removed.
The point was driven home for me early, so it shocked me to listen to Bruce defend the use of the word.
"If that word offends you...I believe you are what you answer to. If someone calls you that and you answer to that, maybe that’s how you carry yourself. Maybe that’s how you see yourself in your own mind."
Bruce had never heard Incognito use that word in the past, but he's heard it from players—both teammates and opponents—of every color. It's one of those things that, as Bruce said, seems normal in a locker room but appalling outside of it.
Hazing or initiation is another one of those things that just seems normal inside a locker room, but Bruce had never seen it go as far as Dolphins' allegations might suggest. He described tasks like carrying pads, cleaning meeting rooms, keeping a "mentor's" locker clean or rookie dinners as usual parts of the process of being a rookie.
Bruce also says that it's the same in every locker room in the NFL.
"Also, what’s a lot in an NFL locker room? You probably have some rituals in the locker room, and no one knows when enough is enough or when it’s crossing the line."
As for whether Incognito ever crossed the line, Bruce couldn't comment on recent allegations, but he'd never seen that out of his former teammate.
"I never saw any of that. I saw Richie as being a guy that had other offensive linemen's backs, he had the quarterbacks' backs. People ask that question: 'If you’re going into a dark alley, who would you want with you?' He fits into that mold. He makes sure he comes out on the other end, and that you’re with him.
"I mean, inside a locker room, what’s overboard? I never saw him physically put his hands on anyone. I never saw him call anyone a name maliciously."
That view of Incognito is shared by many of his current teammates who defended the embattled guard to the media, some even going so far as to call Incognito an "honorary black man" However, not every Dolphins player shares that view.
It's notable, though, that NFL players at large don't hold Incognito in such high esteem. In an unscientific poll taken of NFL players by ESPN, 34 percent said that would rather have Martin as a teammate than Incognito, with only 15 percent answering the other way.
Bruce, however, thought Incognito was a great teammate—both in the locker room and on the field.
"You know what? Honestly, as far as playing football, (Incognito) has some talent. Richie is what I call 'a finisher.' Some of the greatest players that have played, played to the echo of the whistle. Not many guys play to the echo of the whistle, and if you don’t, there’s going to be a problem. It only takes an extra push here, shove there, and you’re in a family feud."
Former NFL player Brendon Ayanbadejo wrote about that "extra push" for Fox Sports:
When the stone apparently broke and crumbled for Martin, why were there not pieces in place to hold it together? In this case, Martin left for a place that was safe and where his voice was heard.
That's the crux of this issue: When is enough, enough?
If NFL locker rooms can't draw that line in the sand for themselves, they may need to have it drawn for them. The United States Marine Corps had that line drawn for them about a decade ago. It was drawn as a zero-tolerance policy. Haze another marine, and a court-martial is headed your way.
In the last decade, have the U.S. Marines gone soft? Have they become somehow less than the most elite fighting force the world has ever seen? Have they become wussies? Have they become less manly?
The answer is no. Indeed, 238 years—almost to the day—since the founding of the Marines, the answer is unequivocally and entirely no. Period. End of story.
If ritual initiation and hazing were once an allowable, "normal" part of life in the Marines, it's clear that they were not an essential piece of that life. In the NFL, it appears that the case is very much the same. Back in that ESPN poll, many of the players described initiations or hazing that seem far more benign than what Incognito and the Dolphins have been accused of.
As details continue to be released about the Dolphins' methods of hazing, Incognito and Martin's relationship and the organization's role in all of this, this is clear: Enough became enough for Martin, and it's starting to appear that things in that locker room extended beyond what is "normal" for the NFL.
One other thing is clear, however: If Richie Incognito and his actions are what the NFL currently considers normal, it may need to change its definition or have the definition changed for it.