Hazing is rooted in the sports culture

Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito, left, and tackle

Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito, left, and tackle Jonathan Martin stand on the field during a practice in Davie, Fla., on July 24, 2013. (Credit: AP)

John Jeansonne

Newsday columnist John Jeansonne. John Jeansonne

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since

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Possibly more disturbing than Richie Incognito's degrading treatment of Dolphins teammate Jonathan Martin is how forcefully other Miami players -- and several in the NFL community -- have joined Incognito in challenging Martin's manhood.

"They're saying, 'What's the big deal? This is how we act, and if you're not part of our culture, you're a wimp,' " said Port Washington sports psychologist Susan Lipkins, an expert on the dangers of hazing.

"It's a classic case of hazing," she said. "And there is a rhetoric of team building to it that, for those who have grown up with hazing, can't even identify it as hazing."

In the days after Martin left the team on Oct. 28 following a lunchroom incident, reports of Incognito's obscene, racially charged voice mail to Martin emerged, along with other anecdotes of Incognito's bent for using humiliation. (Incognito is white, Martin bi-racial.)

Yet several Dolphins publicly expressed solidarity with Incognito, even calling him an "honorary" black man, and indicated that Martin simply wasn't sturdy enough for the alpha-male business of pro football. Others have piled on, including Giants defender Antrel Rolle with an original assessment that Martin shared in the blame for the controversy.

James Walker, ESPN.com's Dolphins beat writer, wrote that it is "time for Jonathan Martin to leave the Miami Dolphins. Miami's locker room has spoken -- and it has sided with Richie Incognito."

Martin, Walker said, is perceived as having walked out on his teammates before a big game, is "thin-skinned and cannot handle the rugged and macho NFL culture" and is "a turncoat who caused a media firestorm."

For a season and a half, Incognito and Martin played side-by-side on the offensive line -- brothers-in-arms sharing a foxhole, in the usual NFL telling -- yet Incognito had dubbed his fellow 300-plus-pounder "The Big Weirdo" and regularly needled him, a masquerade for toughening up Martin.

"You would think, in a sport like that, where you need the guy next to you to have your back and go to the end of the Earth for you, it would be more important for there to be mutual respect," said Duke University sports psychology and sports ethics professor Greg Dale.

"But the culture has to do with this perception of what it means to be a man," he said. "And it starts at a very young age: Tell boys to 'man up' and stop crying. If you show sensitivity at all, your manhood is challenged."

To Lipkins, "what's unusual about this is that Martin was brave enough to stand up and blow the whistle, to say this is hazing and I don't want to take it anymore."

Both experts reminded that hazing is "group behavior," known to all. There are, Lipkins said, perpetrators, victims and bystanders, "and the largest group always is the bystanders" who allow hazing to occur "because the group feels this is what you have to do to prove you're worthy of being one of us. The person being hazed . . . eventually proves, by tolerating it, OK, now he's part of 'us.' "

At that point, he becomes a bystander, on his way to possibly being a perpetrator.

So the cycle continues, with each generation of hazing "becoming more violent and more sexualized," Lipkins said, "because the next person wants to leave his own mark."

The good news in the Incognito-Martin case, Lipkins said, is that the NFL appears "to be taking a more serious look at hazing. That is a change in the culture of the NFL, and that would be a breath of fresh air -- not only for the professionals, but as a model for college and high school athletes."

And the truly manly thing to do.