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Monday, Apr 23, 2018
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A problem the NFL needs to tackle

WASHINGTON — “My actions were coming from a place of love.”

So said Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito, all 320 cuddly pounds, about his racist, profane and threatening behavior toward teammate Jonathan Martin.

Loving would not be the first adjective that comes to mind about Incognito’s voice mails and texts. Reports of the goings-on in the Dolphins locker room give new meaning to the phrase offensive line. As in calling Martin a “half-[N-word] piece of [excrement].” Detailing plans to eliminate bodily wastes “in your [expletive deleted] mouth” and “slap your real mother across the face.” Announcing, “[Expletive deleted] you, you’re still a rookie, I’ll kill you.”

If that’s a place of love, you’ve got to wonder what Incognito says when he doesn’t like you. “No matter how bad and how vulgar it sounds, that’s how we communicate, that’s how our friendship was,” Incognito told Fox Sports.

Football is not my forte. It’s impossible to comprehend this story, the argument goes, without understanding something about raunchy locker room culture in general and the revved-up aggression of professional football in particular. My answer is: precisely. This behavior is incomprehensible. And the notion that it is some inherent, essential aspect of the ethos of sports or football to have people treating (or mistreating) one another this way is repulsive to fans and insulting to athletes.

Yes, football is a violent sport. It involves astonishingly large men deliberately inflicting pain on one another — authorized, highly compensated barbarism. It must be hard to flick an on-off switch to modulate that brutality. And, yes, precisely what transpired between Incognito and Martin remains fuzzy, including whether Martin matched Incognito coarseness-for-coarseness and whether he ever gave Incognito reason to believe the traditional rookie hazing had gone too far.

It’s impossible to judge the conflicting accounts without considering Incognito’s long trail of misbehavior on and off the field. In football, Incognito’s conduct may have held him back; in any other line of work, it would have ended his career. Incognito’s conduct is disturbing, but the reaction of Dolphins’ management and teammates may be more so. Team officials were on notice that his bad boy days were not over. Pro Football Talk reported that after Martin left the team and his agent reported Incognito’s mistreatment, Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland suggested that Martin should just “punch” back. Nice problem-solving there. And the Sun Sentinel reported that Incognito’s actions occurred after Dolphins coaches urged him to “toughen up” Martin, a classics major at Stanford. Meanwhile, teammates seem inclined to side with Incognito. Defensive end Cam Wake described Martin’s experience as a “rite of passage,” adding, “You have to pay your dues to get certain privileges. Everybody I know has done it.” Which, if true, suggests football has a bigger problem than Incognito.

Ruth Marcus’ email address is [email protected]

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