There’s a small but extremely important section in the Ted Wells report on the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito situation that was released Friday.
It’s down low, below the recollections of physical and mental abuse, below the F-bombs and N-words and underneath the references to the plastic sheets and male blow-up dolls. It’s treated as a minor detail because it doesn’t support the overarching thesis that Incognito and a few teammates did indeed harass Martin.
Yet in its opposition to Wells’ main points, it says plenty about the complexity of this issue and of NFL locker rooms then, now and moving forward.
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It’s on Page 69 of the report, where Wells writes, "Martin has not alleged that he was subjected to inappropriate or abusive rookie hazing in the Dolphins training camp. As described to us, the rookie initiation practices during Dolphins camp were relatively innocuous." Wells goes on to describe those practices as "clownish haircuts" for rookies, dinner tabs forced on younger players and a talent show in which all first-year players had to sing for their veteran teammates.
"Although the bill for (one) meal amounted to approximately $8,000," Wells writes, "Martin did not object and does not regard paying for dinner to have been abusive and unfair."
To many who have debated the issue in the months since Martin stormed out of the Dolphins’ facility, Martin was a wimp and a whistleblower on a football culture that’s existed since helmets were made of leather. He was not cut out for this culture, they said as they rattled off dozens of examples of harsh rookie hazing, and his leaving the team was NFL Darwinism as its finest.
In a sense, overall football culture was on trial here as much as Incognito, Martin and the Dolphins’ coaches and front office. The rules of the locker room were in danger of being drastically rewritten — and, to the purists, not for the better. Even Wells cited the impending arrival of openly-gay prospect Michael Sam in an NFL locker room as an "urgent" reason to insist upon "tolerant" environments.
But in Friday’s report, we see that even Martin, a young man who for years has despised the way he handled bullies when he was a kid, realizes NFL locker rooms are different.
Martin obviously doesn’t believe all young players should have their hands held. Surely part of him thinks a piece of Incognito’s intent might’ve been noble, designed to toughen up Martin in anticipation of the difficult times they’d encounter together on the field. By Wells’ assertion, Incognito crossed that line and went from having his teammates’ best interests in mind to being mean to a soft-spoken teammate so he could make himself feel better. (Read: bullying.)
Where that line is, and how players know when they’re in danger of crossing it is the challenge currently facing the NFL and NFL Players Association. Both sides declined comment when asked Friday how they’ll address the situation, but there will be much discussion at league meetings in the spring and with the players in training camps this summer. The gist of the message will stress one of mutual respect between players within the current NFL culture.
But Martin did not call for an overhaul of that culture. Neither did Wells, who dealt a damning blow to Incognito’s chances of resuming his career while criticizing Martin only for leaving the facility without speaking to Dolphins officials. Both parties seem to agree there’s a certain amount of hazing and prodding necessary to build mental toughness and camaraderie for a game that tests the mind as much as it does the body.
Many current and former players agree.
When this story first broke in late October, a retired offensive lineman called me to discuss whether Martin and the media had blown the whole thing out of proportion. His argument was he’d played with guys who were undersized and undrafted who went on to enjoy long careers because they were mentally tough enough to overcompensate for a lack of talent. He pointed to one player who overcame a bad injury to play another half-decade or so. That player, he said, earned the respect of his teammates and gained confidence in himself because he was able to handle the kind of ribbing that would quickly result in a suspension or firing in the corporate world.
I called that player on Friday and read him some excerpts from Wells’ report. The player still conducts business with the NFL and therefore requested anonymity. I know this man very well and can tell you he’s a tremendous teammate who is still loyal to the hundreds of guys he lined up alongside during his career. But if I showed you a transcript of some of the things he said to teammates without any context, you’d think he was a terrible human.
The player chuckled at a few of the passages I read from Wells’ report. When told some of the atrocious things Incognito said about Martin’s sister (i.e. one involving the "plastic sheets" referenced above), he laughed again and replied, "You gotta be kidding me." Even though he’d engaged in harsh locker-room ribbing, it was too much.
But the player still didn’t come down nearly as hard on Incognito as Wells did.
"You have to understand it’s easy to judge from the outside, especially a guy like Wells who never played NFL football," the player said. "Richie said some vile things because he expected a level of performance they weren’t getting from Martin. It’s a very gray area, and every team is different. The bottom line is the message to Martin was, ‘Hey, mother——, let’s go. Your performance affects me, and it’s not good enough.’"
Sure, I told him, I get that. But Incognito went beyond that. At times, it became about more than Martin. It became about one man (as well as Mike Pouncey and John Jerry, let’s not forget) imposing his will on another for what seems like his own benefit. Those guys crossed a line, even if they didn’t recognize it.
"A very fluid line," the player shot back.
Maybe. And that line is about to move again. Part of the action the league and union take in the coming months should be, and surely will be, to encourage victims to speak to their coaches and front office members. And unlike Dolphins offensive line coach Jim Turner, whom Wells believes fostered the bullying of players and then played dumb when asked about his role during the investigation, the next round of coaches, GMs and owners who face a similar situation will be receptive to such complaints.
But for those who think it’s time to bring the NFL more in line with the rest of the world and eliminate hazing and bullying altogether, know that probably won’t be the case. And in the opinion of Jonathan Martin and Ted Wells, it shouldn’t have to be.
"As all must surely recognize, the NFL is not an ordinary workplace," Wells concluded. "Professional football is a rough, contact sport played by men of exceptional size, speed, strength and athleticism. But even the largest, strongest and fleetest person may be driven to despair by bullying, taunting and constant insults.
"We encourage the creation of new workplace conduct rules and guidelines that will help ensure that players respect each other as professionals and people."