The hottest topic in the NFL is the situation in Miami - one that resulted in offensive lineman Jonathan Martin leaving the Dolphins because of bullying led by teammate Richie Incognito, who has since been suspended indefinitely.
Incognito allegedly targeted Martin with racial attacks and threats of violence, begging the question: Is this happening elsewhere? Is bullying and hazing of that ilk commonplace around the NFL?
John Harbaugh and his players say that certainly isn’t the case in Baltimore. On Wednesday, the Ravens coach detailed how the locker room has been built to be a comfortable atmosphere during his six seasons with the team.
“In 2008, that was one of the first things that we did. We’re not a hazing team. That’s not what we’re about,” Harbaugh said. “Anybody that comes into our locker room is a teammate. You don’t have to earn your stripes that way. There are some fun things guys do. Guys have to buy chicken for the road trips, so Popeyes gets a shout-out on that and there’s a lot of Popeyes, a lot of business being done, let me tell you. But our guys do a great job of that and I think we emphasize, we talk about it at the end of the day because it came up.
“But when you can help somebody out and you see somebody alone at a table and they’re by themselves, go sit down and have lunch with them, ask somebody how they’re doing. We also instituted in 2008 our mentoring program. So every rookie is assigned an older mentor, and I think our guys do a great job with that. Harry Swayne does a tremendous job of organizing that and training the mentors, and that’s been a plus for us. So we’re going to continue to try and do that. Nothing’s perfect, but it’s important.
Ray Rice is huge into the anti-bullying campaign. All of us who have kids feel very strongly about that. So as older adults, parents, coaches, teachers, I would think that we would be all over that in our society right now, especially with computers and all the different things that are going on with social media. That’s our responsibility to train our kids how to treat one another. We’re not perfect, but we do our best.”
Wideout Torrey Smith echoed those feelings while strongly expressing his belief that there’s no place for hazing in the NFL.
“I can say that I know from my personal experience in Baltimore, it would never happen,” he said. “We have great leadership and guys are focused on trying to win. If you’re out there focusing on trying to win, then a little hazing and things like that, it doesn’t matter. If you’re going to sit there and bully a rookie who you’re going to need or keep him up at night hazing him, or have him scared to come to work the next day, how is that person going to help you when you need him? It’s been like that since I got here.
“I anticipated being hazed. I watched Hard Knocks. I watched all those crazy shows and we came out of the lockout and they had missed a whole offseason of potential hazing. So to my surprise, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, (Terrell) Suggs, Haloti (Ngata) take us right in like, ‘All right. We need y’all to be ready to play. We don’t have time to haze.’ You’ve got to sing, buy your Popeyes, but that’s it. It’s more so a family atmosphere and welcoming you in rather than trying to tear you down, isolate you. I don’t even get how hazing even brings a team closer. It’s stupid to me.”
The Dolphins’ problems have gone to show how hazing can be detrimental to a team. In all his years in football, Harbaugh said he has never experienced anything like that.
“I’ve never been a part of it where it was detrimental,” he said. “When we were kids, we were taped to goalposts and stuffed in lockers - when we were in seventh grade. So it’s not just football or sports - it’s fraternities, it’s sororities, it’s all those kind of things. But there sure as heck better be a line there and an understanding of where the line’s at, and I’m not determining where that’s at.
“It was different 25 years ago. When I was in college at Miami (Ohio), there was hazing. I look back on it and it was things that you would never tolerate today. So, we’ve grown as a society. Maybe we’re growing past some of that stuff. But you see it in all areas of life and we better be more tuned into it, maybe now all of us, than we have been in the past.”
Veteran defensive lineman Chris Canty, who has assumed a leadership role in his first season with the Ravens, spoke more directly about the Dolphins’ situation than any of his teammates.
“Having racially charged attacks on Jonathan Martin, I don’t think that would take too well in any NFL locker room, including the Dolphins’ locker room,” Canty said. “I don’t think guys understood the extent of what was going on. I’ll put it this way - I don’t think it would end well for whoever that was leaving those remarks and leading the charge on those type of racial attacks. There’s no place for it anywhere in our society. And we all recognize that an NFL locker room is a different kind of workplace, but that being said, there’s still no place for it. Racial slurs, racially charged attacks, there’s no place for it and I don’t think guys in the locker room would stand for it. The locker room is a place that typically polices itself and I think in such a situation, it would. ...
“I have a hard time believing that somebody can refer to somebody with those kind of racial slurs and those kind of racially charged attacks, I don’t think that guys in that locker room would have been comfortable with that and I don’t think they would have allowed that to take place. I think there would have been some major issues with Incognito had those guys understood he was saying those things and doing those things to Jonathan Martin. So I don’t imagine that playing out well for Incognito in any NFL locker room.”
Canty connected the bullying of Martin with the Riley Cooper incident in July, when the Eagles wideout was caught on camera using a racial slur at a concert. Cooper wasn’t suspended for any regular season games and returned to the team on Aug. 6 while it has been made known that Incognito will not be welcomed back by the Dolphins.
“It is unfortunate that this is continuing to take place,” Canty said. “I do want to commend the Miami Dolphins for setting a precedent and the course of actions that they’ve taken as opposed to what the Philadelphia Eagles decided to do, giving Riley Cooper a slap on the wrist. I think that emboldens people to continue to use those kinds of slurs, make those kinds of remarks, have those kinds of attacks. I think that the Dolphins are setting the right example for how a workplace should feel safe and secure for everyone, and they’re setting an example for everyone in America.”
So, does Canty believe there’s a place for someone like Incognito in the NFL after what he did?
“Playing in the NFL is a privilege, not a right and I think it should be treated as such, and I don’t think there’s any place for racism, racially charged attacks,” Canty said. “I don’t think there’s a place for it.”
Since details of why Martin left the Dolphins have leaked out, many players have anonymously blamed the victim for not handling the situation differently.
Smith is among those to publicly defend Martin, who had few good choices in terms of how to handle his problems with Incognito.
“Guys are going to say that (blame the victim) because football’s a manly sport, a sport that’s typically about dominance and you’re going to hear guys react that way - stand up for yourself, fight back,” Smith said. “But at the same time, if he did that, where would it have gotten him? We don’t know if it would’ve worked.
“People don’t bully the strong links. So clearly there was something that he saw that he took advantage of. You don’t just bully anyone, and it’s very unfortunate. I’m not going to disrespect their locker room, I don’t know anything about it. But if you have great leadership in there, you can see what’s clearly a problem where it goes from being fun to a problem, which it escalated to and hopefully they’ll get it right.”
Harbaugh also believes veteran leadership can help ensure such things don’t happen in any workplace or other venue.
“Veteran leadership shines in terms of what kind of people they are. I think if you have guys that understand and have a heart for other people, then they’ll do a good job of that and will never cross the line,” Harbaugh said. “You know, things can be hidden from teachers and coaches and everything else. But you also have to be vigilant if you’re in a leadership position as a teacher or a coach or a boss, and try to ask a lot of questions, try to talk to people all the time. Most people will tell you what’s on their mind if you really want to find out, most of the time. And we find that to be true here. So you’ve just got to dig in and try to find out as much as you can and see if you can head something off.”
Like his teammates, Suggs doesn’t envision something like that ever happening with the Ravens.
“I just think it’s a terrible situation for both sides to be a part of, players and the organization,” he said. “But it just goes to show what kind of organization we are, what kind of character guys we have in our locker room and we’re fortunate enough that we don’t have to have that.”