The practice is as old as the sports themselves.  Anyone who saw the movie “Paper Lion”, the account of writer George Plimpton’s saree through the Detroit Lions training camp posing as a quarterback prospect, saw rookie Lem Barney stand on his chair in the team dining room and sing his Alma Mater for his teammates. It’s called hazing.  It’s included such h-jinx and sophomoric stunts as making rookies pay for meals, dress in funny costumes while traveling on road trips or buy gifts for veteran players.  In a culture like the one that exists in the NFL such practices, when left unchecked can become ugly, dangerous and socially unacceptable.

Every time a blind eye is turned or an escalated prank is accepted with a wink and a smile, the culture expands and players become emboldened, sometimes to the extent of going rouge with their antics.  The culture of hazing has gotten out of hand in the National Football League and it finally came to a head last week when lineman Jonathan Martin walked away from the Miami Dolphins, saying he could no longer deal with the actions of several teammates.

The treatment he was forced to put up with sent him into therapy.  The immediate response from football fans was to question how a 6-5 mountain of a man could be bullied.  The uninitiated don’t understand the tactics of bullies.  Most of them have nothing to do with physical violence.  In the face of physical violence most bullies back down.  Their preferred theater of operation is the theater of the mind.

In this case one culprit led to the situation that became unbearable for Martin.  Offensive lineman Richie Incognito started his attacks when Martin was a rookie, but it soon turned ugly and vicious and carried into Martin’s second season, taking on hateful racial overtones.  The incident that led Martin to walk away from his NFL career after just 23 games was a classic example of bully enabling.

When martin attempted to join a group of fellow linemen at the dining hall table, on Incognito’s lead, they all moved to another table while Martin endured slurs from Incognito.  It was classic bullying “herd” mentality, in which only one person is doing the bullying, but, once one of his targeted jokes is laughed at, he’s encouraged to follow with another, and another.  Once the crowd becomes involved the bully becomes incorrigible.  It’s a culture that creates the kind of bulletproof mentality that even leads to such cases as that of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez.

Incognito’s actions eventually carried beyond the confines of team, to phoned and texted hate messages including racial slurs and threats against Martin’s mother.  To say he’d gone rogue doesn’t properly interpret what Martin was living with.

The Dolphins finally acted yesterday, suspending Incognito, saying he will never play for them again.  It’s likely he will never play for any NFL team again.  The players union is certain to step in on his behalf, but they should tread carefully, remembering they also represent any player Incognito would chose to bully.  A lifetime ban may seem harsh but the NFL has to play hard ball right now.  This case requires a penalty that makes every player, including the unborn, not just the culprit in this case, get the message.  To keep Richie Incognito out of the NFL would be to symbolically make the bold statement that there is no room for this activity in the National Football League.

With a comment from the sports world, I’m Scott Gray.


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