Most of us know the story and all the sordid details by now. The former Miami Dolphins offensive lineman systematically and intentionally led a ring of harassment—disguised as good ol' fashioned, "boys will be boys"-style initiation rites.
Fellow lineman Jonathan Martin was the main target of the harassment (though others, including non-player team employees, felt the sting as well) and eventually left the franchise to enter intensive counseling. Some failed to buy Martin's story, as the two seemed to remain friends throughout the worst of the hazing, but the Ted Wells report eventually laid out just how bad things got.
Now, months later, Martin is a member of the San Francisco 49ers—reunited with his college coach, Jim Harbaugh. He's unlikely to fight for a starting spot on such a talented unit, but he's only 24 and completely fits in with the 49ers' team-building concept of having plenty of depth at key positions so as not to overpay to keep starters down the road.
What about Incognito?
The embattled guard, only 30—young by NFL lineman standards—is still a free agent and has remained (mostly) under the radar since the dust of the Wells report settled. He has even undergone in-patient treatment at a facility in Arizona to help overcome some of his personal demons.
When, if ever, does Incognito get to come back to football?
"Deserve"...By Whose Estimation?
Who decides when enough is enough?
I don't mean just in the NFL. In that case, commissioner Roger Goodell is typically portrayed as judge, jury and executioner of all things discipline—and rightfully so since the collective bargaining agreement gives him that kind of latitude. If Goodell says Incognito can play, following a planned psychological evaluation by NFL and NFLPA physicians, as first reported by Ian Rapoport of NFL Media, then Incognito can play.
There's more to it than that, though. Just as with any public wrongdoing, whether it's a crime, a terrible thing said in sports or stupid things musicians and other celebrities do, the public and punditry class seem to have quite a large variance in deciding when enough chastisement is enough.
Apologies are always deemed opportunistic in the most cynical of fashions. No one gets to be actually sorry anymore, because we expect change and actual remorse from public figures about as much as we expect Santa to really come down the chimney this Christmas.
We live in a world where public relations, political correctness, brand management and damage control have so warped our consciousness that few of us can actually handle real emotion if it's not served up to us courtesy of Tom Rinaldi on ESPN's College GameDay.
I'm not qualified to know if Incognito is sorry enough.
No one is.
There will be plenty who simply don't care whether he's sorry or not.
A big group of NFL fans still feels Incognito is in the right and that Martin is part of some overarching "sissification" of America ("sissification" often being the only G-rated word those fans use).
The opposite of that He-Man, "real man" group of Neanderthals that believes harassment is essential to life as we know it is the group that won't ever "forgive" Incognito.
"Forgive" is in quotes there because Incognito didn't actually do anything to them, but this group will hold its grudge against him (or anyone, really) long after anyone actually involved in the events has moved on.
Though not exactly the same people, this group bears the same hallmarks as those who can't let Michael Vick do anything without mentioning his dog-fighting past. You know, the past that he served his sentence for, has repeatedly apologized for and has done many hours of community service and charity work to pay for—that past.
Ray Lewis, Ben Roethlisberger, Leonard Little and now Incognito—all reminders that there will always be a group of people who cannot let people exist without bringing up their past faults.
If that's the way you want to live your life, go ahead. I won't try to stop you.
I just won't listen either.
I've been as hard on Incognito as anyone. What he did was despicable and has no place in football or anywhere else for that matter. The league is changing—evolving from a business perspective for very good reasons. For my stance on Incognito, plenty of the aforementioned anti-PC crowd have labeled me the "fat kid who got picked on at school" or compared me to a part of a woman's anatomy, and that's fine because I don't have to listen to that either.
Whether you think what Incognito did was right, wrong or just doesn't matter, why should his punishment include never playing football again? What gives any of us the right to deny a man the ability to ply his trade and make a living?
Why does anyone—other than Goodell and those aforementioned psychologists—get to have an opinion on what Incognito does from this point forward? In the end, they don't. Fans and media who will take a well-meaning stand against Incognito ever playing another snap will be clutching their pearls for nothing, and we'll all be worse off if we participate in their useless conversation.
To answer the entire question of this column prematurely, whether Incognito deserves to play in the NFL again isn't up for debate. We don't get to set the parameters for his rehabilitation, nor do we get to have a say in how many times he needs to say sorry before he steps on the field again.
A Player's Worth Is Always Determined on the Field, Regardless of Anything Off It
Then again, the answer isn't quite that simple.
From an NFL team perspective, Incognito is a bit of an albatross—even more so than he's been for most of his career. Not only is getting him on the field a tricky proposition because of the evaluation he'll need to undergo beforehand, but the potential long-term ramifications are even more concerning.
What if Incognito hasn't changed?
If you need to, scroll up and realize that I just made the point—ad nauseam—that fans and media don't really get to ask that question with any authority. NFL teams, on the other hand, need to ask themselves that repeatedly before signing him.
I've said it plenty of times before: Every player acquisition in the NFL is essentially a risk/reward proposal.
When a team needs to add a player, whether it's through the draft, free agency or trade, the conversation always revolves around how much reward the player can bring (i.e. how does this player help us win football games?) against the risk (what are we giving up by bringing him in?).
This question is the same whether the risk is simply the small amount of money (more appropriately, cap space) given to an undrafted free agent or the risks in bringing in someone like Incognito.
Let me be clear: Incognito is not Tim Tebow or Michael Sam. Those players posed similar questions for very different reasons. Teams worried about the media storm and publicity bonanza around those two attention lightning rods and weighed that against their belief in those players' abilities and how well they thought their locker rooms would hold up against the extra attention.
In all, those concerns are pretty minor. If a locker room can't handle the extra cameras and questions because of Tebow or Sam, the problems probably run a bit deeper anyway.
Rather, with Incognito, the risk is that he will fall back into old habits. The Dolphins are still cleaning up the toxic atmosphere he helped create, and the NFL is not going to abide by him creating the same elsewhere.
However, none of that will keep Incognito from the field if a team believes he can help it win football games. If the potential reward outweighs the risk in any team's estimation, Incognito will be brought on board.
Time is certainly a factor, not only to let the dust settle, but also to monitor the situation—including his oft-used but suddenly silent Twitter account—to see if he relapses into another rant. Teams that might be interested will continue to touch base with Incognito's agent and make sure everything remains on the up-and-up, not only with his conduct but also with his fitness.
Time matters too in terms of the investment a team is going to make.
According to the CBA, each vested veteran (with four years of playing time) has the right to termination pay once in his career. Basically, it fully guarantees the base salary of a player if the team is forced to cut him during the season.
This is one of the big reasons why the Dolphins suspended Incognito last season and waited to cut him, as explained by Andrew Brandt of Monday Morning Quarterback.
The only question left is, can Richie Incognito still play football?
Last season, before the suspension, Pro Football Focus had given Incognito a positive grade (subscription required) in six out of the eight games he played. Overall, it also credited him with six sacks allowed along with three QB hits and two hurries.
The consistent refrain on Incognito for his entire career is that he's been just good enough. He's been labeled the NFL's "dirtiest player" and is known for getting every bit of production out of his skill set by playing to the whisper of the echo of the whistle.
Before the 2013 season, Andy Benoit wrote for Football Outsiders that, "Inside, Incognito can scrap his way to success when his head is screwed on right."
That's almost identical to what I wrote on my scouting sheet following the 2012 season, which said, "Physically [he] has the ability to win many matchups, but production is often better than expected because of toughness and attitude." Later down in my notes I wrote, "[He] wears opponents down and gets under their skin as well as anyone."
In many respects, Incognito has on-field traits that any coach would love to instill in all of his players. Because of that, teams that are worried about their line play in 2014 could conceivably talk themselves into Incognito being an improvement, and they might actually be right.
The Oakland Raiders, for instance, have expressed a modicum of interest (or, at least, something that isn't public revulsion) at the idea of bringing Incognito on board, per Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com. On his end, Incognito would probably like to play for anybody, but he sees the Raiders as a possible fit, per NFL.com's Michael Silver.
Though Incognito would likely be an upgrade from either Tony Bergstrom or Kevin Boothe in 2014, it's notable that Bergstrom is only 27 and the team just drafted Gabe Jackson, whom it would probably value giving snaps to more than having a short-term/average replacement in Incognito.
So, while it's possible that a team like Oakland—or maybe Arizona, Baltimore or the New York Jets—might feel that Incognito could help it win a football game or two in 2014, there is more to the puzzle than immediate rewards.
That said, it only takes one team or one injury to change Incognito's fortunes.
Ultimately, whether or not Incognito deserves to step back onto an NFL field is going to be a football decision, not an emotional one. It's not going to depend on how sorry he is or whether we've all exacted our righteous judgement upon him.
In the end, Richie Incognito will deserve another chance if a team decides it needs him.