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