"Ninety-nine percent of the time, what’s going on in the locker room is just guys trying to be relaxed. The NFL is a job, so the locker room is where you want to have fun."
That's former NFL lineman Mike Goff, a 12-year veteran of the Cincinnati Bengals, San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs. Goff is a massive man with hands hardened by years of blocking the NFL's best pass-rushers, and eyes that have seen it all in the league.
"Whatever those two had going between them is very much beyond anything I’ve ever seen in 12 years of playing in the NFL."
Those two refers to Miami Dolphins linemen Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito, who have been playing out the worst possible rendition of The Odd Couple until Matthew Perry's version comes out later this year.
Martin left football this past year to reportedly undergo treatment for depression and PTSD. Details soon began to leak out about the untenable situation the Miami locker room had become for him. Incognito, a leader on the team and one of its best linemen, became the focus of intense media scrutiny and allegations of bullying.
The media outlets—both local and national—that reported on this story are as beyond reproach. Jay Glazer of Fox, Adam Schefter of ESPN...these guys don't mess up. Bleacher Report waded in the waters as well, with original reporting from Mike Freeman and myself.
Weeks...months later, this story had taken several turns. Incognito, first suspended and now unsuspended in order to allow him into free agency, will likely never be a Dolphin again. The Miami Herald's Armando Salguero predicted back in December that Martin will be traded this offseason to any locker room ready to accept his on-field potential and ignore the potential of melodrama.
The melodrama has only increased in the last week as The Big Lead was able to procure alleged text messages between Incognito and Martin, showing an extensive snapshot of their friendship. Contained in the exchanges were references to both drug use and prostitution.
John Thornton, a 10-year veteran on the defensive lines of the Tennessee Titans and Cincinnati Bengals, is now a certified agent. He said the NFL locker room, for the most part, "is like society. Some guys go home to their families. You’re going to have everything in the locker room, just like you will on Wall Street."
However, he added, "I would say most guys are professionals, so I would say it's minimal." Goff agrees: "Are there people going to strip clubs? Absolutely. Do they go as a group? Absolutely, but they're not doing anything illegal. Prostitution? I don't know anything about that...I've never seen any of that."
Neither Incognito nor Martin came out of the released texts looking like a stand-up human being, but as to their relationship, it's important to remember it's just a small part of the whole. We don't see Martin's texts with other friends and family, nor do we see Incognito's texts to others—including Dolphins center Mike Pouncey, who is alleged to have been involved.
Dr. Jen Welter is a Ph.D. in psychology and an athlete herself (rugby and football). She cautioned that there's still a lot of information to be learned before making final judgements. "I don’t know [Martin's] history before the team," she said. "You have an isolated incident, even in the text messages, you’re only seeing part of the picture. You’re only seeing how he was with Richie. How was he around other teammates."
Welter went on to say that how they talked and how they interacted in social settings would be much more important to actually assessing their relationship, but noted that she was confused by both the amount and timing of the texts—especially those toward the end of their relationship and after Martin left the team.
"At one point, why didn’t [Martin] cut off communication?" Dr. Welter questioned. "Why didn’t he say, 'hey I don’t feel comfortable.' Their exchange after he’d been withdrawn from the team is the most telling."
This is a facet of the story that has befuddled fans for some time. Martin's supporters (and, as a columnist, I took his side of the story at face value—perhaps to error) have suggested and clung to the fact that Martin claims his side of the texts were done in order to try to fit in.
So, in that way, these texts have simply entrenched the extremes of both sides. Some have moved their own particular needle toward Incognito, just as Martin's national TV interview moved that same needle toward him.
When the NFL's official report is released, will the needle move again? Will it matter?
NFL Chief Correspondent for Player Health and Safety Andrea Kremer released a tremendous report on the nature and the culture of NFL locker rooms. I wholeheartedly recommend it and believe it sheds some light on how NFL players feel about this "safe haven," as she describes it.
In the report, countless players tell Kremer how the locker room contains coarse language, racial language, sexual language, etc. Kremer also makes the point of how most locker rooms are good at keeping things internal.
For Martin, for whatever reason, safety was not part of the plan. Whether Incognito directly led to it or not, Martin was treated for severe depression. One does not just check himself into a mental hospital to get out of a game he then wants desperately back into.
Even if, as some fans suggest, Incognito was just a scapegoat for Martin's depression, the depression paints a very weird sheen over this picture that clouds and warps our view of the events.
At that point, maybe we don't just blindly excuse every single action of Martin's, but perhaps we take a second outside of our own personal paradigms to wonder if maybe his life doesn't fit into the neat little box we would like to fit it into.
As for Incognito? He is far more conducive to NFL locker room life, and that has helped him throughout the many narratives this story has taken on. Goff pointed out that the first and most important thing to find in a locker room is one's thick skin.
"You have to have tough skin, first of all, to be in the NFL business. That goes further than just the locker room. It goes to coaching, how the fans treat you, etc. You have to develop a hard exterior, a shell as a skin."
Thornton, in his very first words to me, echoed that statement to a degree: "Kind of a silly story to me, I just hate when stuff gets out."
This, in short, is the NFL culture's majority response to the story. To paraphrase: This kind of thing happens all the time—to, at least, some degree. Maybe Incognito is a loose cannon. Maybe he's the worse among us. But Martin could've manned up long before he ran away.
I'm not putting those words in the mouth of anyone I interviewed, but many in the Twittersphere or NFL fan "comment-ariet" have wondered why Martin (a grown man) didn't just punch Incognito in his face to end all of this.
I asked Goff to describe the second weirdest thing he'd seen around a locker room, if we're counting this current situation as No. 1.
"Ten years ago, in Cincinnati, two guys got into a fistfight wearing only their shower towels," he remembered. "They basically got into a war of words, and the next thing you knew, they were throwing punches. Then their towels came undone, and they kept fighting. The other guys were really slow to go in and break things up."
While I wouldn't call that scene "normal," it's more along the lines of what you'd expect in a locker room. (By the way, if anyone wants to co-opt that into a scene for the next great football movie, give me a call.) You expect a little friction, and you expect course correction. If a nose gets a little bloodied, that's fine, because everyone will grab a beer later. Right?
Thornton even went so far as to call this "a silly story," saying, "I just hate when stuff like this gets out."
Don't take that to mean that Thornton wishes the NFL locker room could be some clandestine hell-scape of hazing and the worst of Incognito and Martin's tweets. No, rather, Thornton believes the locker room might be a "weird place, because you have so many different types of people," and that this stuff shouldn't define it.
Yet, this stuff does get out. Dr. Welter said, "You can't make up anything in this electronic age," meaning that (as this situation is proving) people can always dig and find some digital trail.
Rumors and whispers get out, too, because there's more resistance than there used to be. Goff explained how, when he was a rookie, younger players weren't a big part of the team. There was a pecking order, and even earlier picks needed to wait in line. Today, it's less of a surprise to see even undrafted free agents starting or playing big roles on the team.
“If I’m going to be counted on to be a big part, why should I be a part of this rookie hazing stuff?”
Goff told another story, reminiscent of Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, where a rookie defensive back refused to carry a veteran's pads and had his clothes end up in the bottom of the cold tub.
"He flipped a gasket. It ended when a veteran went up and said, 'Look, don’t let them know how much this gets to you.' The way this kid rebounded, he ended up joking about it later."
Goff also added that the worst "hazing" he got as a rookie was picking up breakfast sandwiches, along with another rookie, every morning. Hardly what we would consider hazing, and hardly what has been alleged in the Dolphins' situation.
Goff's account and the way other veterans like Thornton talk about the locker room seem more normal to our sensibilities. Yes, it's always going to be different with so many A-type personalities and variant backgrounds in such close (and testosterone-charged) quarters, but the idyllic Egg McMuffin version sounds so much more in line with the NFL as a product than the strippers and blow version Incognito and Martin are peddling.
That's the rub, isn't it?
The NFL can't be what Martin and Incognito enjoyed, for a time. It's a sellable product with fungible value, sponsors and media coverage out the wazoo. The NFL is supposed to be family friendly and appeal to nice old men in suits who will purchase a luxury box (and one for the wife and her friends, too).
The NFL often talks of wanting to "protect the shield" (referring to the NFL crest). The players union, too, focuses on teaching young players to act less like big boys and more like young men. The NFL is a business, and players need to be businessmen first.
In some respects, as the world changes with younger players making a bigger impact, and social media and digital evidence trails changing the way the NFL is covered, the culture must also evolve. Is there room for good-natured initiation rites? Some will say yes, some will say no. In the end, Roger Goodell will have his say.
In the particular case of Martin and Incognito, however, the time is up for growth. This was an extreme case, it seems, and (much like Bountygate was for bounty programs across the league) serves as a great time to make an example and set a course toward what the league believes a locker room culture should really look like.
There are so many questions right now, yet so few answers in the Martin-Incognito situation. One thing we know, however, is this: The general public may never understand the unique culture of the NFL locker room, but Incognito (and possibly Martin) took things to an extreme that has no place in the league today.
Where the league goes from here will largely depend on how willing and open the players are to making sure situations like this never happen again.
Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.
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