One of the big scandals that developed over the course of the 2013 NFL season was left unsolved. The Miami Dolphins have been under intense scrutiny following a bullying controversy that tested the ethical code in professional sports.
On October 28, 2013, offensive lineman Jonathan Martin walked out on the team, claiming he was being bullied by his teammates. Fellow offensive lineman Richie Incognito was quickly identified as the main source of the misconduct towards Martin and he was suspended indefinitely by the Dolphins. Teammates who were at the scene told investigators that Martin was the subject of a prank in the team lunchroom that day, headed by Incognito, and that the prank was the immediate reason for his abrupt departure.
Accusations from both Martin and Incognito, combined with silence on the part of the Dolphins organization in regard to how much they knew of the scandal, has left the public scratching their heads. No one seems to know for certain what happened between the two players.
What makes this situation all the more confusing is that Incognito and Martin, by all accounts, were close friends and exchanged hundreds of texts between each other.
Bryant McKinnie, who joined the Dolphins last month, told ESPN of the relationship, “I thought they were friends. They looked like friends to me. I never seen any tension or anything. I didn’t see this coming.”
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill acknowledged that Incognito did give Martin a hard time occasionally, but added, “[Incognito] was the first one there to have [Martin’s] back in any situation.”
The lack of details about the situation has not stopped anyone from taking sides though. Many people criticised Incognito after a voicemail he left for Martin was made public. In the voice message, Incognito used racial slurs and threatened Martin’s family.
On the show NFL Countdown, ESPN analyst Tom Jackson called Incognito a racist, a bigot and a bully.
“It’s all wrapped into one package,” he added.
Renowned host of the the show Olbermann, Keith Olbermann provided plenty of controversy by claiming that Incognito would be lucky to get out of this situation without going to jail.
However, many of the veteran and former players for the Dolphins have backed Incognito and have separated themselves from Martin.
Lydon Myrtha, who was an offensive lineman with the Dolphins until 2013 and is now retired, offered his take in Sports Illustrated.
“What fans should understand is that every day in the NFL there are battles between players worse than what’s being portrayed. This racial slur would be a blip on the radar if everything that happens in the locker room went public. But all over the league, problems are hashed out in house. Either you talk about it or you get physical. But at the end of the day, you handle it indoors.”
Tyson Clabo, current offensive lineman on the Dolphins, told ESPN, “I think if you have a problem with somebody—a legitimate problem with somebody—you should say, ‘I have a problem with this,’ and stand up and be a man. I don’t think what happened is necessary. I don’t know why he’s doing this, and the only person who knows why is Jonathan Martin.”
In a highly publicized interview with Fox NFL Insider Jay Glazer, Incognito stated that Martin and he were in fact friends and he was shocked at Martin’s reaction.
When he texted Martin asking for an explanation, Martin replied, “I don’t blame you guys, I blame some stuff in the locker room, I blame the culture. I blame what was going on around me.”
Incognito addressed the aforementioned voicemail as well: “I’m not a racist. And to judge me by that one word is wrong. In no way, shape or form is it ever acceptable for me to use that word, even if it’s friend to friend on a voicemail. I regret that.”
This was not Richie Incognito’s first locker room incident, however. Incognito has always carried off-field baggage, going all the way back to his college career at the University of Nebraska. In 2002, during his freshmen year at Nebraska, Incognito took a cheap shot at an offensive lineman’s back during practice for no apparent reason. This caused the player to immediately storm off the field.
In 2004, despite entering the year being praised as one of the top linemen in the country, Incognito was released by former Nebraska coach Bill Callahan who claimed that Incognito had violated team rules multiple times. Later in the year, Incognito transferred to the University of Oregon, but was released within a week after failure to meet strict requirements set for him by former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti.
At the NFL draft combine, Incognito displayed remarkable physical talent, showing his explosive speed and strength in the 40-yard dash and the benchpress. However, his day was cut short when he sustained a knee injury that prevented him from participating in the other events.
Even though Incognito possessed all the physical traits scouts look for in a first-round caliber player, his anger and behavioral issues were so severe that he was viewed as a high risk for drafting at all. But the St. Louis Rams took a chance on Incognito in the third round of the 2005 draft.
Former Rams coach Mike Martz said they were looking for a lineman with a little attitude and grit to support their physical style of offense “because that’s the way the game is played in the NFL, obviously. That nastiness is evident, especially in Incognito.”
Incognito played well in his first three seasons with the Rams and he seemed to have silenced his critics. But, as always with Incognito, trouble was not far behind.
In 2009, during a blowout 47-7 loss to the Tennessee Titans, Incognito’s emotions got the best of him. He was flagged for head-butting an opposing player twice and was seen getting into a heated verbal spat with the head coach. Following the game, Incognito was released by the Rams.
With his future seemingly in jeopardy, Incognito was given one last shot with the Miami Dolphins. Seeing his career slipping away, Incognito finally admitted to his anger problem and revealed he had a marijuana abuse problem as well.
“I mean, we’d have practice the next morning, and I’m out until all hours of the night, running the town,” Incognito told Jeff Darlington of NFL.com. “Drinking. Doing drugs. I was doing everything that a professional athlete should not be doing.”
Incognito sought medical help and started taking medication to curb his reckless behavior. And it showed. Incognito, in his second season with the Dolphins, committed just two personal fouls all season, and was selected to his first pro-bowl. This remarkable turnaround story took many, including Incognito himself, by surprise.
“I made a lot of mistakes,” Incognito said. “I made a ton of mistakes. And I was really hard on myself, and I’ve learned from them. I’ve used those mistakes to motivate me and to take me to new heights.”
The Jonathan Martin debacle threatens to put a bitter end to an otherwise feel-good comeback story. Incognito has filed a grievance against the Miami Dolphins challenging his suspension, but his future remains in serious doubt.
Many believe he and Martin will never play for the Dolphins again as a result of this incident.
“He’s done,” a club source said of Incognito on November 4, 2013. “There are procedures in place and everyone wants to be fair. The NFL is involved. But from a club perspective he’ll never play another game here.”
Martin wants to play in the NFL again but feels he cannot do it with the Miami Dolphins.
Martin and Incognito are not the only people who have left the Dolphins as a result of the incident. Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland was fired on January 7 partly due to his mismanagement of the Incognitio/Martin scandal.
Whether or not either player makes it out of this situation remains to be seen, but the scandal has nevertheless opened up a debate about larger questions and consequences.
What is acceptable behavior in a professional locker room? Where should we draw the line between hazing and bullying? And can an adult really “bully” another adult?
In the interview with Glazer, Incognito said of his “hazing” of Martin. “They [Martin’s family and Martin] took it as malicious. I never meant it that way.”
However, what he meant may not matter anymore.