First, there was the chilling Aaron Hernandez murder case. Then there was the overblown Riley Cooper business. And now Richie Incognito.
The NFL didn’t need this.
The NFL asked for this.
You know the basic story by now. Incognito is the menacing, angry, tattooed guard for the Miami Dolphins who, if his history tells us anything, has been in a bad mood since forever. He is accused of harassing, threatening and bullying teammate Jonathan Martin. He sent him racist texts. He threatened to harm him and his family. He threatened to do things to Martin that can’t even be printed or even hinted at in a family newspaper.
Martin, a second-year player from Stanford, walked off the job last week. He left the team because he couldn’t take the bullying anymore. That’s when the details emerged. Incognito was suspended by the Dolphins indefinitely for “conduct detrimental to the team.”
At first glance, the situation seemed absurd: An NFL player bullied? Why doesn’t he take it up with Incognito personally? There were those in the league who said as much. At 6-foot-5, 315 pounds, Martin can take care of himself, can’t he? NFL linemen aren’t known for walking away from insults and challenges, and these things are usually best settled face to face, rather than dragging authority figures into the fray. But that’s much easier said than done, as anyone who has ever been bullied can tell you, and why should he have to?
Maybe the lesson is simply this: Bullying isn’t just a problem for kids or the small and weak. No one is immune from bullying, whether it’s a Navy SEAL or a 300-pound football player.
Martin, whose parents are both Harvard graduates, studied classics and played football at Stanford (he was also offered a scholarship by the University of Utah) while Incognito was punching his way through two universities, so maybe they weren’t the best fit to begin with.
Now the NFL, which just settled the concussion lawsuit and is currently reeling from an injury epidemic, has one more problem on its hands. Does anyone smell a lawsuit coming? Or other bullying cases coming to light that serve up more feed for the talk-show set and lead to more lawsuits?
Coaches and general managers talk about the importance of having high-character players, but it’s usually just lip service. When will they learn that character really does matter as much as a 40 time? They poke them, prod them, give them physicals, examine their medical records, interview trainers and former coaches, submit them to an intelligence test, put them through a variety of athletic tests — and yet many of them ignore character — the heart or very being — that is at the center of all those things.
It’s not as if the NFL types don’t know what they’re getting into. Hernandez came with so many red flags out of college that he looked like the United Nations. He was still drafted in the fourth round.
Incognito came with at least as many red flags as Hernandez. At the University of Nebraska, he was convicted of misdemeanor assault and was suspended from the team twice. He started fights with teammates and was ejected from a game for fighting. He spat on an opposing player in the Alamo Bowl. He transferred to Oregon, but he was dismissed from the team before he attended a practice.
According to USA Today, Incognito bullied a teammate at Nebraska until the teammate finally fled practice.
Tony Dungy, the former Colts and Bucs coach, said on “The Dan Patrick Show” that the Colts placed Incognito on their “DNDC list” — Do Not Draft Because of Character. Scott Pioli, the former general manager of the Chiefs now with the Patriots, told NBC that he wouldn’t draft Incognito out of college. ESPN Scouts Inc. noted Incognito’s "inability to control his emotions both on and off the field is such a significant concern that he'll likely slip to the later rounds of the draft."
He was still chosen in the third round of the 2005 NFL draft by the Rams. All that mattered was that he could bench press 225 pounds 29 times and cover 40 yards in 4.8 seconds while weighing more than 300 pounds.
In four seasons with the Rams, he collected 38 penalties, including seven unnecessary roughness violations, most in the league. He was pulled from the 2009 season opener after committing two personal fouls that resulted in a $50,000 fine from the NFL and an official warning against further infractions. In a game against Tennessee later in the season, he drew two penalties for head-butting opposing players and was again pulled from the game, after which he got into a confrontation with head coach Steve Spagnuolo. Two days later the Rams cut him. The Buffalo Bills claimed him, but cut him after the season. Just like that, two of the league’s worst teams had dismissed Incognito even though he had the kind of talent that would take him to the Pro Bowl eventually. So of course another team signed him in 2010 — the Dolphins.
Incognito has developed a reputation as a dirty player in the NFL, allegedly gouging, punching and head-butting opponents. In 2009, he was named the NFL’s dirtiest player in a survey of NFL players by The Sporting News. Incognito has talked about the need to change. He has tried medication for anxiety and depression, as well as meditation. He sounds like a tormented man, but in the meantime he’s tormenting everyone else, as well.
Lawrence Jackson, a former NFL defensive end, wrote on Twitter, "Hate is a strong word but I've always hated Incognito. Just for perspective, he's the guy that makes you want to spit in his face."
Maybe now Incognito has played his last game in the NFL.
Or has he?
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org