Richie Incognito is an awful human being.
Incognito has been known as vicious and cruel, petty and dirty, dangerous and proud of it, from high school up through two different college programs and two NFL teams. Time and again, Incognito has done things no regular member of society would be allowed to get away with. Sometimes, he got a slap on the wrist. More often, he got a pat on the back.
None of that is why Incognito should be banned from the NFL.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that a league comprised of thousands of the biggest, baddest, toughest gym rats around contains a few testosterone-fueled meatheads. Nor should it come as a surprise that guys who physically compete head-to-head for one of the most exclusive jobs on Earth don't always like each other.
In the heat of battle, intense bonds are forged between some—and intense friction occurs between others.
What happens in NFL locker rooms and training grounds often goes beyond what would be acceptable in polite society. But what Incognito did—according to ESPN's Adam Schefter and others, by personally terrorizing Martin throughout Martin's two seasons in the NFL—crosses a line that should never be crossed.
Though the Dolphins have suspended Incognito for "conduct detrimental to the team," per Mike Garafolo of Fox Sports 1, it's still an open question as to whether even this behavior is enough to keep him off a football field for good.
The Culture Perpetuates the Cycle
Today's NFL is a bizarre mix of cultures.
The owners, nearly all exquisitely educated and nearly all blessed to receive and hand down generational money, are giants of American industry and part of its upper-crust elite. The executives they employ to run their teams are often similarly blessed.
These men (and a few women) sell NFL fans a polished, family-friendly product. Their players work in the community, become local (and national) pitchmen, and, as described by ESPN's Jemele Hill, take etiquette lessons to more comfortably rub elbows with the white-tie set.
The real culture of football, though, doesn't know spats from spitting.
Football culture is passed down from generations of coaches who were once players to players who will someday be coaches. It's beaten into dusty junior high practice fields and lingers in the air of musty high school weight rooms. In thousands of high schools from coast to coast, hundreds of thousands of boys (and a few girls) get weakness beaten out of them and toughness drilled into them.
As I've written before, football has gotten much of its culture from military life. As football evolved from brutal sideshow to popular sport throughout the first half of the 20th century, many players and coaches served in the military; that culture lives on in every aspect of football, from its technical terminology to its widespread homophobia.
In military culture, where the slightest weakness—real or perceived—costs lives, all such non-conformity is intimidated, worked or even beaten out of the group. So it is in football.
As Bruce Feldman, then at ESPN, wrote when Incognito was playing at the University of Nebraska, a kid with burning desire to hit and hurt others isn't a liability on the field of battle—he's an asset. And the bullying Incognito suffered as a child at the hands of fellow children fueled the fire in the offensive lineman's belly:
It didn't help Richie's disposition any that he was tormented by the other kids. Every day it was "fatass," "lardass" or "whale." When teachers told his folks that Richie never stuck up for himself, Richie Sr., a mason and old-school tough guy, told his son, "you can't let them keep doing it." So one day, on the playground in third grade, Richard Dominick Incognito decided that Joey, the local loudmouth, had called him "lardass" for the last time. Richie answered with a one-two combo that sent Joey home with two black eyes. The whuppin' didn't give Richie any satisfaction. "We were both scared," he says. "He ran one way, and I ran the other." But from that day on, Richie never backed down. "I think fighting was distasteful for Richie," Bendian says. "But he realized that if you want a kid off your back, you have to beat the crap out of him."
Incognito told Feldman that he explicitly turned that fire against his classmates, his teammates, the ones who tormented him:
"Football gave me confidence," Richie says, "and something to put my energy into." And in football, Incognito found a game for which all of his faults were virtues. Bernard marveled at Richie's mean streak and how he was able to summon that hostility on every down. He'd never been around a guy so rough. "When he put the pads on, he became such a [jerk]," the coach says. "He'd yell, 'I'm not so fat now, am I?' It was a job keeping him from hurting our other guys."
Incognito, per Feldman's piece, didn't allow a sack throughout his entire high school career—and went on to take his place in Nebraska's long line of powerhouse offensive linemen.
Nebraska, as Feldman wrote, quietly began shuttling Incognito to anger-management classes. Patience for Incognito's constant blow-ups and fights with opponents and teammates alike was wearing thin. Nebraska's decision-makers clearly hoped they could contain the wildfire raging in Incognito without putting it out.
After repeated discipline problems, multiple suspensions and an assault conviction, per Sports Illustrated, Incognito quit rather than serve an indefinite suspension. Incognito's temper and talent were still useful, though, so he was invited to enroll at the University of Oregon.
Oregon head coach Mike Belotti, per USA Today, required him to fulfill "conditions we had set down." Incognito lasted a week before Belotti determined those conditions "were not met."
Incognito then declared for the 2005 NFL draft.
More of the Same
Incognito was no different in the NFL than he was in college—and his coaches were just as slow to recognize his inhumanity to opponents, teammates and fans alike.
"Rams Won't Discipline Incognito for Taunting Fans," reads this 2008 headline from USA Today, after three seasons of his behavior being no better than in his college days. In 2009, a Sporting News survey of 99 NFL players named Incognito the league's dirtiest player, per NFL.com.
It wasn't until that year, when then-new Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo took over, that his act wore thin. When Incognito racked up two personal fouls in the first half of the Rams' game against the Tennessee Titans, Spagnuolo cut Incognito loose.
Note, though, that it wasn't Incognito's years of dirty play or training camp fights or verbal harassment of anyone within earshot that finally cost him his job; he ended up getting the axe for drawing on-field penalties.
When Incognito's on-field performance became more of a hindrance than a help, that's when he finally faced the music...
...until he was picked up off waivers by the Buffalo Bills that December.
Professional Football and the Workplace
In a way, the NFL is no different from any other workplace. You may be assigned to a project where you have to work closely with someone you don't like or respect, and it can make your job endlessly frustrating.
What if your job was to physically battle that person all day long?
It's no wonder that fights and flare-ups occur. It's no wonder that things get heated, get personal, get violent. It's no wonder things get said that can't be taken back.
Part of the football culture is the code of the locker room, the code of silence that keeps these things between teammates. It's this code that allows ferocious grown men to tap into their darkest thoughts and primal fears and channel that energy into action.
Former Detroit Lions All-Pro linebacker Chris Spielman once told the Detroit Free Press' Mitch Albom:
Before a game, I get so worked up, it's like burning a fire, I want more fuel, more fuel. I hate to say it, but now that I have a little girl, I think of the other team as like, kidnappers, they're trying to hurt her, I got to stop them.
Think about the incredible, primal emotions these men tap into 60, 70, 80 times a game, playing on the edge of insanity. We can't see these dark, almost demented states of mind from the stands.
Would we be there, if we could? Probably not—hence, the code.
When tape was released of then-New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams giving a brutal, violent, fire-breathing speech that advocated his players try to intentionally injure opponents, many NFL fans and media were shocked.
As Bleacher Report's Aaron Nagler detailed at the time, though, many current and former players spoke out to say that save for the exhortation to shred ACLs, Williams' speech was much the same as any other pregame speech.
Breaking the Code
How are people around the league handling the news of Martin's absence? A lot more like spittle-flecked high school gym teachers than professionals.
Sports Illustrated's Jim Trotter did a quick survey of reactions around the league and found a disturbing prevailing attitude:
We're seeing a transition of the league culture from bunker to boardroom.
Many NFL players are no less educated or well-mannered than the executives who draft them. Many NFL players are intelligent, creative and well-positioned for professional life outside of football.
These archaic "man up" attitudes toward Incognito's actions aren't just eye roll-inducing; they're doing real harm to the fabric of at least one NFL franchise.
What Incognito did goes beyond simple bullying. It goes beyond rookie hazing. It goes beyond forcing Martin, a well-paid second-round draft pick, to pick up the tab for some veterans' steak and lobster.
Incognito, according to multiple reports, left threatening voice mails using racial and sexual slurs. He called Martin names, threatened Martin and his family with violent acts, and even said he'd kill Martin. These threats, whether "joke"' or not, are absolutely unacceptable.
This goes beyond "bullying," or workplace friction, or even just plain hating somebody. These threats, combined with the systematic belittling, exclusion and hazing, created a culture so toxic Martin had to remove himself from it—and did so fearing retribution from Incognito, per ESPN's Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter.
Bullying happens everywhere, to everyone, at some time in their lives. It's a social ritual that forces conformity. People who don't fit in are bullied until they submit to accepted norms.
I recall a sixth-grade locker room where two dozen kids trapped me in a semicircle around my locker, then pushed, hit and bounced me around off of the lockers, over and over. One hit me with a right hook, driving my glasses into my face, breaking the glasses and drawing a crescent of blood around my left eye. I ran to the gym teacher in tears.
"I'm sick of your crying," he said. "Go cry to your mama."
Years of bullying built up a fire in me, but I didn't have a physical outlet. I alternated between acting out and withdrawing, getting into trouble and escaping into books. Slowly, I dealt with it internally, gaining wisdom and maturity with age and experience.
In high school, I decided try out for the football team. I walked into the room, though, and froze: plenty of my elementary and middle-school bullies were in there.
Instead of seeing an opportunity to hurt those who hurt me, like Incognito, I felt a powerful sense that I didn't belong, that football was no place for someone like me.
Maybe Jonathan Martin feels the same way.
A young man with the passion and talent to play professional football for a living has stepped away from the game, and it's all because of Richie Incognito's personal harassment and the toxic football culture which supports it.
If the NFL wants to be the premier American sport for the 21st century, it must evolve past its wartime roots. It needs to have a place for a player like Jonathan Martin—and none for Richie Incognito.