Guest Column: The NFL’s dirtiest player

Chicago Tribune

In 2009, Richie Incognito’s peers voted him the “NFL’s dirtiest player” in a Sporting News poll. One former teammate told CNN that Incognito is “always top three” in that ballot.

This year, his Miami Dolphins teammates elected him to their six-man leadership council.

That made perfect sense in the locker room. And it provides some context to the uproar over Incognito’s relationship with second-year offensive tackle Jonathan Martin, who walked away from the team’s training facility last month over alleged bullying and hasn’t returned.

The Dolphins suspended Incognito indefinitely for “conduct detrimental to the team” after he demonstrated his leadership skills by leaving an ugly voice mail on Martin’s phone. Incognito reportedly called Martin a racial slur and threatened to defecate in Martin’s mouth, slap his mother and kill him.

Bullying in the NFL is a hard concept to wrap your brain around. So is the idea that it can be addressed by workplace interventions, such as the league review requested by Dolphins owner Stephen Ross.

The NFL’s “workplace” is between the goal posts, where the line separating sport and violence is never clear. Brain injuries are an occupational hazard. Last year’s controversy was over so-called bounties paid to players who caused injuries bad enough to knock key opponents out of a game. On the football field, the character traits that mark someone a bully aren’t much different from the ones that define a Pro Bowl guard. Like Incognito.

Every team that ever signed him, all the way back to his college days, eventually cut him loose for over-the-top aggressiveness on or off the field. But there has always been another team willing to scoop him up.

As far as many fellow players are concerned, Incognito didn’t cross the line until he dropped the N-word in an audio recording. Much of his behavior toward Martin — the disrespectful taunting on Twitter, the tone-deaf overuse of the nickname “Big Weirdo” — is described by teammates as the sort of affectionate ribbing suffered by kid brothers everywhere. Plenty of kid brothers would probably vouch for that.

Rookie hazing is widespread in the NFL, according to players. Most of them make no apologies.

“This league is a group of elite men, it’s a fraternity, it’s a brotherhood, it’s a lot of things,” Dolphins defensive end Cam Wake said. “And there is a membership. You have to pay your dues to get certain privileges.”

For Dolphins rookies, those dues included dyeing their hair and sporting goofy haircuts during training camp — something that can’t have gone unnoticed by coaches or the rest of the team’s elected “leaders.” Martin’s dramatic exit from the training facility was reportedly precipitated by a cafeteria prank staged by the team’s offensive linemen: When Martin sat down, they all left the table.

Is this the NFL or the seventh grade? One way to tell is that these are grown men. (Incognito is 6-foot-3, 305 pounds; Martin is 6-foot-5, 312 pounds.)

Another way to tell is that the victims aren’t exactly being shaken down for lunch money.

Rich Gannon, who played quarterback for the Vikings and Raiders, told USA Today about dinners at which veteran players ordered multiple entrees and $1,500 bottles of wine. “Every guy at the table would order a bottle for himself,” he said. “Guys were ordering bottles to take home with them. ‘Give me two of those bottles to go.’ And they were running up these $30,000, $40,000 tabs at dinner and then have the rookies pay for it.”

Is that abusive? A lot of players — and fans — say it isn’t. Many of them think the only thing that went wrong here was for Martin to go public with his complaints. By doing so, he handed the NFL yet another public relations disaster, and now there’s a lot of hand-wringing about “changing the culture” of professional football. Good luck with that.

The league is likely to find that Incognito violated its personal conduct code. His career could be over. But the notion that this sort of behavior isn’t tolerated in the NFL runs counter to the long-standing message that yes, it is.

That contradiction won’t be resolved until the league, its players and its fans make up their minds: Is “NFL’s dirtiest player” a censure, or a compliment?