Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin hazing story puts NFL locker room behavior in spotlight

Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito, center left, and

Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito, center left, and and tackle Jonathan Martin, center right, sit on the bench in the second half against the New Orleans Saints. (Sept. 30, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Until the controversy ignited the past two weeks about the alleged bullying of Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin by teammate Richie Incognito, the worst incident Amani Toomer had seen in his 13 seasons with the Giants was a fight between rookie tight end Jeremy Shockey and linebacker Brandon Short.

Shockey was being subjected to the kind of time-honored ridicule that rookies have endured for years, but he didn't like it and he did something about it.

Shockey, a first-round pick in 2002, was ordered by Short to take part in the customary welcome routine for rookies.

"Name, school and signing bonus, son. Then sing!'' Short yelled to Shockey in the team's training camp cafeteria. Shockey wasn't in the mood because he hadn't slept much after an all-night trip from Miami to the team's Albany training camp. But he grudgingly obeyed.

"Jeremy Shockey, Miami Hurricanes, $3.3 million,'' he said.

Short said he couldn't hear him and told Shockey to say it louder. Shockey eventually obliged, sang the Miami fight song and then stared at Short and said, "That's for you and your hearing problem, B. Short.''

Short then lunged at Shockey, and a brawl erupted before it was quickly broken up by teammates.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"That's as bad as I've ever seen it until what's going on with the Dolphins,'' Toomer said. "Shockey was belligerent and out of line. That's not how you speak to someone like Brandon."

In Toomer's mind, Shockey crossed a line. "Shockey tells the story that Brandon missed, but I saw him in the training room with an ice pack on his forehead," Toomer said. "It was nothing like what we're hearing about in Miami, though. That thing just got out of hand.''

Dolphins in deep water

It's certainly no laughing matter in Miami, where there could be sweeping changes at every level of the organization. While the facts of the case still are being sorted out, reports have suggested that Incognito was told by the coaching staff to "toughen up'' Martin. Another report said general manager Jeff Ireland told Martin's agent that the player should "punch'' Incognito to make the alleged bullying stop.

While the Dolphins' situation continues to evolve and an NFL-appointed attorney, Ted Wells, prepares to begin an investigation that eventually will be delivered to commissioner Roger Goodell -- the results of which will be made public -- the situation has shed a light on the interactions between veteran players and their younger teammates.

Martin, a second-round pick out of Stanford in 2012, left the team on Oct. 28 after an incident in the team's cafeteria, when he sat down to eat and was left to sit alone after the players he joined walked away. Martin's attorney, David Cornwell, has said in a statement issued late Thursday night that Incognito and other teammates have bullied Martin to the point that he felt he had no choice but to leave the team.

The Dolphins have suspended Incognito indefinitely for conduct detrimental to the team, and the 30-year-old guard reportedly will consider filing a grievance against the team.

Amani: Not league-wide issue

In a league in which rookies and other young players often are initiated through a series of customs that are not considered to be anywhere near the alleged intensity of the Dolphins' situation, the issue of hazing and bullying has taken center stage among coaches and players around the league.

"I think the fact that we're reading about it and that it's become such a hot topic, not only in sports but in society, is because it rarely happens like this,'' said Toomer, a radio host for NBC Sports Network and a television analyst for the Giants' game-day television programs. "You look at this issue of bullying and people ask if it's a league-wide problem and if the league is going to have to change, well, it's just not true. If you look at Incognito, he was kicked out of Nebraska, kicked out of Oregon, released by the Rams, released by the Bills. The only reason he's still in the league is because he's a good player. But [other] good players don't do these types of things.''

advertisement | advertise on newsday

About the only initiation Toomer experienced during his rookie season in 1996 was having to buy juice each week for his teammates. First-round defensive end Cedric Jones had to buy doughnuts. Young players from other teams often are told to carry the helmets and shoulder pads for their older teammates, underscoring a pecking order established by the veterans.

Coughlin didn't stand for it

Occasionally, things go overboard. Last year, for instance, a video showing Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul throwing second-year cornerback Prince Amukamara into a cold tub went viral. Coach Tom Coughlin immediately spoke to Pierre-Paul and told him the behavior was unacceptable, even if it was intended to be playful. Coughlin repeated his message this past week about players treating one another with respect.

"You want everybody to be the very, very best football player that they can possibly be,'' Coughlin said. "The player has to be comfortable in his environment. He's not going to grow and develop if he isn't. We did have an incident [last year] with one of our players and I was concerned and I addressed the issue at that point in time. Concerned from a twofold standpoint. One, the player could have been hurt. If the player was being asked to do something or being forced to do something that he wasn't compatible with, he could have been hurt and that would be been a major issue for us. The second thing, I was very disappointed that there were some that thought it was funny. It obviously wasn't.''

'Enough to put NFL on notice'

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"There are legal implications here for the team and for management," said attorney John Schepisi, a partner in the Englewood Cliffs, N.J.-based firm of Schepisi & McLaughlin. "It's been brought to everyone's attention that it's been going on, and the management, the coaches and the team owner [Stephen Ross] are going to be subject to lawsuits. Whether these things are said in jest or not, and even though [Martin] is over 6 feet tall and over 300 pounds, he can still be harassed and still be bullied.''

Attorney Silvana Raso, chair of the family law practice at Schepisi & McLaughlin who has represented children and adults who have experienced bullying at school and/or work, said the NFL as a whole needs to take note. "It's no different from any workplace situation,'' she said. "This story is enough to put the NFL on notice that there is possibly a widespread problem among players and that their employees are being harassed.''

How harassment is defined and interpreted by the league and the players could go a long way toward determining whether the Incognito-Martin situation is an isolated case or a pattern. Goodell has been largely silent on the matter and is expected to wait to see what Wells' investigation brings before any potential changes are instituted. But it is worth noting that Goodell said in a statement announcing Wells' appointment: "Under league policy, all employees have the right to a workplace free of any form of harassment. We are fully committed to an appropriate working environment for all NFL personnel.''

Does that mean the rituals that many players don't seem to mind ultimately will disappear? It's too soon to tell, although many seem to take mild forms of hazing in stride. And others who sometimes resist are not always ostracized.

"There's a limit to pressing people,'' former Giant Harry Carson said. "When [tight end] Mark Bavaro was a rookie [in 1985], I asked him to get up and sing. He said, 'No, I'm not going to sing. I don't sing.' The tone he used came across that he's not one of those guys you want to [mess] with, so you leave him alone.''

Jets don't feel threatened

Jets rookies Sheldon Richardson and Dee Milliner attempted to push back on an unspecified rookie initiation this past spring, but they weren't quite as successful as Bavaro.

"We pushed back once,'' said Richardson, who buys doughnuts for his teammates every Friday. "[Milliner] and I went to go eat, and when we came back to our room, our mattresses were flipped over and everything was on the floor. I mean everything.''

Did he ever find out who did it? "Nah,'' Richardson said. "Cold case right there.''

But he said neither he nor any other rookies have felt threatened. And the team does have administrators in place, as well as a team psychologist, in the event a player needs help. "It never gets to the edge,'' Richardson said.

Jets coach Rex Ryan said building team chemistry through respect is essential.

"Everybody's different,'' he said. "You've got married guys, single guys, different religious beliefs. You've got 53 guys in there and everyone's different. The thing that binds you together is respect, and that's something we certainly strive for.''

Now it remains to be seen if that sense of respect will take on a new meaning -- and perhaps comes with new guidelines -- as a result of what's happened inside the Dolphins' locker room.

Subscribe to Newsday’s sports newsletter for stories, photos and videos about your favorite New York teams plus national sports news and events.

Comments

Newsday.com now uses Facebook for our comment boards. Please read our guidelines and connect your Facebook account to comment.

You also may be interested in: