The NFL’s Bully Problem

The NFL’s Bully Problem

The story of NFL player Richie Incognito bullying a teammate is just the tip of the iceberg.


You have to admire the chutzpah of the NFL commentariat. They are falling all over themselves shouting that Dolphins offensive lineman, and outed racist bully, Richie Incognito has “no place in the National Football League.” With an élan that would shame Claude Rains, they are shocked, shocked that there could possibly be bullying in the NFL. How, they ask, can we protect a heroic, All-American institution like pro football from the scourge of bullies? Won’t someone please think about the children? Well, not the children getting bullied by football players, but other children. The ones who love NFL football!

The problem is that football has become as interwoven with bullying as corruption on Capitol Hill. As much as we may be repulsed by Richie Incognito and the way he treated teammate Jonathan Martin; as much as we all want to cluck our tongues at the news that Incognito threatened Martin with violence, joked (I deeply hope) about wanting to defecate in his mouth and slap his mother, as well as calling him a “half-n****er,” the easiest thing in the world would be to look at this the way the NFL wants us to look at it: as if we are witnessing the story of one player who just took the good, clean fun of rookie hazing too darn far.

This is crap. There is a stench of complicity throughout the Dolphins organization, with teammates as well as anonymous team officials  reflexively defending Incognito at every turn. I spoke with former Baltimore Colt Joe Ehrmann, a man who has dedicated his life to using football to teach principles of social justice (yeoman’s work, but Joe makes you believe it’s possible). The first thing Joe said to me was, “What about the ‘bystanders’ who knew, watched, and did nothing? If this was happening, they all knew plus I would guess some of the coaches as well as others. Seems to me that there is a lack of moral courage and moral clarity by many on that team. Hazing like homophobia, gender violence—all common themes in hyper-masculinity worlds—won’t end until we raise up generation of men willing to stand up and speak out.”

Joe, who has mentored NFL players for decades is absolutely correct. The villain in this story is not only Incognito but a culture in football, starting at the top, that behind closed doors extols players like him whose role is to police the “softness” of his younger teammates.

In the NFL, for far too long the ideal man has been a big, nasty bastard who affects an persona of being mean as hell and impervious to pain. Any dent in this armor of projected hyper-masculinist power—like admitting to depression, expressing concern for LGBT or women’s rights, or even sitting out a play—is to be in violation of the code.

This kind of code does not only produce generations of muscled men who don’t know how to relate to women outside of a strip club. It creates a caste of people inside the locker room who charge themselves with policing their teammates. Enter Richie Incognito, locker-room cop. As one personnel man swooned, Richie is “tough as nails. The kind of guy you’d want to be in a bar fight with.”

When the story first broke, and all we knew was that Martin was accusing Incognito of bullying, the NFL powers-that-be were sickened by Martin’s lack of toughness. According to Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter, the view off the record of every NFL personnel man he spoke with was, “Instead of being a man and confronting him, Martin acted like a coward and told like a kid.”

However, once the public outrage exploded when the content of the bullying became public, it was time to treat Incognito like an outlier and a loose end, to be held up and then cut off. Very typical of the response was that by “Iron Mike” Ditka, the former Bears coach who has made a lucrative living by being a public face of the kind of idealized machismo Richie Incognito was conditioned to emulate. Ditka said that the way he would have handled Incognito would have been to “take him to fist city.”

But what if Martin believed that fighting the 300-pound Incognito would end up with him in the hospital? What if he believed that it wouldn’t solve anything but just create more problems? What if he believed that the Miami Dolphins constituted a workplace, not a frat house or schoolyard, and that he did not have to play by Incognito’s rules? What if Mike Ditka and his ilk cannot understand that maybe, just maybe, “manhood” might mean blowing the lid on racist harassment as opposed to getting into a fist fight like a child?

The villains in this story may include more people than just Richie Incognito. But the hero is Jonathan Martin who had the courage to treat this like the workplace issue that it is, break the jock code of silence, and demand that he should not have to deal with this crap. In the process, Jonathan Martin is giving football a crash course in what adulthood, not an adolescent conception of "manhood", actually looks like when practiced by an honest-to-god grown-up.

Dave Zirin's open letter to Redskins owner Dan Snyder.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy