I’ve written numerous insider-perspective articles regarding my time in the NFL since becoming a proud member of the Bleacher Report family, but perhaps none has left me as vulnerable or as introspective as the complicated topic surrounding the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito saga.
This platform will serve primarily as a reactionary narrative intertwined with my own personal experience of being the “weirdo” on an NFL football team.
One thing that cannot be questioned is that Jonathan Martin has gone through an incredible amount of personal anguish. It’s extremely important we consider the level of stress he must have been under to risk his career and good standing in the NFL when he walked out on everything and everyone associated with the Miami Dolphins.
Underneath the lights, behind the glamour and just below the fame of professional football exists a culture and environment so harsh and so unforgiving that it could never hold up to the political correctness of a normal workplace scenario.
Ricky Williams’ interpretation of this ordeal, via 95.7 The Game, provides a unique (and what I believe to be an accurate) context regarding the culture of the NFL.
Here’s an excerpt from the Williams interview:
How is bullying something that's even mentioned regarding the NFL? Because that's kind of what we're taught to do—at least on the field—is to bully the guy across from us so we can win the football game.
It's kind of what we're subjected to on a day-to-day basis that most people will never be able to understand… What we're required to do physically, mentally and emotionally for the course of a season is astronomical—it's amazing. And I'm not saying that it's bad. I'm saying it just really speaks to what it takes to be a professional football player. And to me there's no room to play the victim or to be bullied or to even have that discussion when it comes to the NFL. If you're having that discussion, it just means that maybe you don't belong in the NFL.
I too have experienced some of the very stresses that would eventually take a 6'5", 310-pound man to the brink of his own sanity. Like Martin, I am of a mixed-race background, with a black father and a white mother. Both Martin and I are products of academically prestigious college environments and just so happen to be soft spoken, quiet and, at times, socially awkward.
Even now I cringe to reveal this about myself on such a public platform. Though these things may seem trivial, understand just how difficult it is to divulge some of my more carefully guarded weaknesses to thousands of strangers.
Considering much of the bullying components regarding Martin seem to be connected to rookie hazing, perhaps it’s a good idea to start there.
When I was drafted out of the University of California by the Oakland Raiders, I was indeed aware of the horror stories about being a rookie in the NFL and some of the things league veterans did to mess with you. Not surprisingly, none of that could compete with the excitement of having an opportunity to play football on the biggest stage in the world and make a ton of money.
Not bad for a kid who quit football for two years right after high school, declining several scholarship offers along the way because the idea of playing football in college was, quite frankly, an intimidating prospect from a physicality standpoint.
As you can imagine, the details and methods of hazing vary considerably from team to team, and even position to position. My experience with this process was nearly entirely a positive one in Oakland.
I was expected to carry the shoulder pads and helmets of the veteran linebackers and defensive linemen after practice. On travel days, the rookies were forced to drive to the nearest Popeye and buy food for their entire position group to be consumed in transit from 30,000 feet up. Although this caused some moments of stress when trying to get back before the team bus' departure, it was generally accepted and understood as a justifiable duty.
For flights, rookies had to wait after the veterans before sitting on the plane. During preseason, when the roster is at 90 players, finding a good seat on the plane can be a real challenge.
Training camp offered more opportunities for veterans to flex their muscles, as rookies were subjected to horrific haircuts that ranged from creative to just plain ugly. My haircut fell in the realm of the latter.
To be honest, I enjoyed having the veterans collaborate on my haircut while initiating me into the family. It generated a lot of laughs and lingers in my memory as one of the best bonding moments of my first NFL training camp.
Next came the highly entertaining rookie show. This show was supervised and accepted by the coaches. The event was something most of the team looked forward to and saw as a rare, light-hearted form of entertainment as well as a rite of passage for first-year guys.
As a generally shy person who avoided the spotlight, anticipation for this day was nerve-racking to say the least.
A few fellow rookies and I decided to team up for a skit that would mock a typical post-practice meeting for the defense. My role was to impersonate the defensive line coach, Keith Millard, who happened to be one of the more colorful characters I'd ever met.
The performance turned out to be legendary, as the quiet guy who didn’t say a whole lot performed the most immaculate impersonation of Coach Millard they had ever seen. Players were rolling on the floor in uncontrollable laughter.
As a matter of fact, I would eventually be subjected to endless requests by both coaches and players to recreate my performance from that night. Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and several other vets said it was the best rookie-show performance they'd ever seen.
Had it not been for the rookie show, I don’t think I would have ever made so many friends or felt as connected to the team. That entire process really allowed the team to get to know another side of me, which made me more approachable in the long run.
Hazing Gone too Far?
One night during the early weeks of the regular season, several of the defensive players decided to go into San Francisco for a rookie dinner. They rented a limousine and swooped up as many rookies and veterans on the defensive side as they could. The decision to have this event on that particular night was either a surprise or spontaneous, because I was actually hosting family and friends that day who drove up from Los Angeles to visit and was unavailable.
The next day I discovered that I owed $5,000 to the veterans for a dinner in which I took no part in—sound familiar?
Rather than make any waves, I wrote them the check the next day. Apparently, they bought every single bottle of the most expensive champagne in the restaurant and would have bought more had the supply not been completely exhausted.
Although it seemed excessive, I was thankful to be in the position to do this and understood it was a one-time deal that is part of a long tradition. I wished I was there to enjoy it.
This was more or less the extent of my hazing experience as a rookie, aside from the constant reminders of your status by being universally referred to as “Rook” from the veterans.
It should be understood that general forms of rookie hazing are not some terrifying epidemic that needs to be eradicated, but rather a special ritual that, when done properly, can help cement new relationships, show respect to those who came before us, and incubate a healthy chemistry within the locker room.
However, like most things, this too can be implemented improperly through malice or other dysfunctions. Moreover, you never really know how an individual is going to react to being in such a submissive and vulnerable position.
In an article published in The New York Times in 1998, Mike Freeman talks about the evolution of hazing in football over the years.
After I was released by the Raiders during my second season, I would eventually sign with the New York Jets during the third week of the 2006 season. This was then-head coach Eric Mangini’s first year with the team, and he was in the process of reinventing the culture of the organization.
Keep in mind that being cut from an NFL team can be a tremendously traumatic experience and often leaves a long-lasting hangover.
I was still struggling to come to terms with being released by the Raiders while trying to transition into an entirely new team, with entirely new players, in an entirely new city on the other side of the country.
Considering that most of the team bonding occurs during the many months of the offseason and in training camp, I was intrinsically placed into the outsider role and forced to fight my way out with a high investment in the social realm. Considering I was behind the eight ball in learning the defensive playbook, finding a place to live, buying a car and familiarizing myself with basic life necessities, I put the need to bond with teammates on the lower end of my priorities.
To the guys in the Jets locker room, I represented the departure of a person they'd already grown to like. I represented the ever-present awareness of the borrowed time we’re all living on.
Not only was I the new guy, but I was also more reserved and quiet than most. I gave people little opportunities to get to know me.
At lunch, I dreaded having to make a decision on which table full of strangers I was going to sit with. Generally, I would gravitate toward a table that best represented my wave length—perhaps one with philosophical debate or enjoyable personal stories. This was not a normal option. The choices were often limited to endless ragging on each other about bad haircuts, hunting or who the best rapper alive is.
To make matters worse, I had no real way of entering in on many of those conversations, as inside jokes and character boundaries had already been established. In addition, there was always this endless feeling of having to study for a big test that would be taken during reps at practice. While everyone else was months into the playbook, I was days into it.
It’s important to mention that intelligent and thoughtful players are found in every locker room across the NFL landscape. My inability to bond and fit in was largely the product of my own insecurities and self-perception.
I was definitely struck by the contrast in locker-room dynamics from the Raiders to the Jets. In New York. the culture was much more abrasive. The locker-room banter seemed to be fraught with belittling one another; it was a dynamic I was neither well-versed in nor good at navigating through.
As the weeks went by I did eventually make friends and had some interactions here and there, but my tendencies as a quiet and withdrawn person were carrying the majority of the momentum. Conversations were not completely absent, but there was definitely a lack of balance on my end to truly fit in with the crowd.
What do you do when a group of guys are laughing at things you just don’t find funny? What do you say when the conversations are about hunting and you’ve never held a gun?
The more time passed the more people probably thought I was completely boring and let me be. Name-calling and ragging on each other was not something that came my way very often during my time in New York but was tossed around liberally by players as the primary method of group interactions. I became so afraid of having the roast turned on me that I would do everything I could to go unnoticed.
On travel days and game days, suit-and-tie attire was mandatory. These days were always a self-induced trauma for me, as it was tradition for guys to seek out the worst suits among us.
This process of suit-bashing would literally take up an entire day and could get pretty insulting. I knew I was a ripe target for ridicule, considering I bought a cheap, ill-fitting suit when I arrived in New York because I had to get on a plane the next day and didn’t have time to get it properly tailored.
You must understand, these men spend thousands of dollars on each suit and typically have an entire wardrobe of custom-fitted suits they paid way too much for. I, on the other hand, had a crappy suit I paid a few hundred bucks for and the same dress shoes I wore for my college games.
Every time I wore that suit, I would shrink into a perpetual state of insecurity, hoping to survive the potential bombardment of ridicule long enough to get up to my hotel room. Although it may seem like I would have been the most-targeted guy for this type of ridicule, I was actually so successful at being invisible on those days that it rarely even came my way. It was merely the fear of ridicule that haunted me to a state of paralysis.
It also showed me something even more alarming; I realized that I was so much of an outsider that guys didn’t even feel comfortable to tease me. Throughout my entire football career, never did I hate playing the game more than when I played for the Jets in 2006. I was miserable.
I wondered whether I even wanted to play football anymore. I was literally afraid of returning to the Jets and going through training camp with the current locker-room dynamics. Through it all, I knew I was creating my own hell but didn’t know how to reverse it (nor did I have the courage to even if I did).
I devoted my energy to my craft and was an intense competitor. My courage would show up most when my helmet was on.
As you can imagine, players are going to try and test a guy like me and see whether they could break me. In this regard, I believe I deviate most from whom I perceive Jonathan Martin to be. When tested by guys who thought I was weak or soft, they quickly would see the feisty animal that lies within.
Football at least provided me with an outlet and a stage to prove that even though I may be quiet and unassuming, I am not someone you want to mess with. To get this message across amid such a violent backdrop, it requires a violent nature to be engineered. Without it, you cannot survive the culture as a soft-spoken guy.
Troy Polamalu is a good example of a guy who is incredibly unassuming off the field but becomes a violent Tasmanian devil on it.
During my time on the Jets I stumbled into a few physical altercations with teammates where they may have mistaken my kindness for weakness. After each altercation, a new level of respect would not only seem to emerge, but also sustain itself.
I believe Martin must have been dealing with the same sorts of emotions and inner torment that I was.
I understand how that can build into something of a volcano. I can also imagine that his struggles on the field, as well as constant criticism by the media and Miami fanbase, were chipping away at him internally.
It’s impossible to determine what the best course of action for Martin would have been to rid himself of his inner turmoil. But for me, I know that the environment I hated so much was mostly a direct reflection of a hatred I had for myself.
I hated the prison I constructed around me to keep me safe from my own social awkwardness.
Football is a sport designed for one man to bully another. The very nature of the game requires a man to brutally dominate his opponent. To play this game, you must be incredibly tough. To play this game at the NFL level, you better be tough on nearly every level imaginable. Thick skin is a prerequisite.
We need to consider the possibility that Martin possesses a character and personality type that does not fit in the harsh world of the NFL. Furthermore, we should be careful with any attempts to make a uniquely demanding sport tolerable for those who struggle to thrive within it.
The Darwinian qualities we perpetually seek to minimize are, in fact, the very elements that make the game so special.
There’s a reason I have not mentioned Richie Incognito once until now. For me, he represents the opposite end of the spectrum from Martin. But his tendencies and character are that which happen to contribute to his success in the NFL.
Though he often crosses the line and can be seen as a raging madman (explicit language), he actually better represents what an NFL general manager wants than Martin does from a character standpoint. Intense, violent, brutal and aggressive are assets for an offensive lineman—whereas kind, friendly, passive and peaceful are not.
This is just the nature of the game.
If these two personality types were working in a law firm, Incognito would likely feel like the outsider struggling to relate to his coworkers, while Martin would presumably be more at home than ever. In this hypothetical environment, Incognito would be the brunt of constant ridicule and made to feel both primitive and inadequate.
Yet what’s interesting in that scenario is that just like Martin and myself in the NFL, Incognito would have authored his own hellish nightmare as the awkward and disrespected outsider.
With that said, I do not condone nor defend anything Incognito is alleged to have said or done to Martin. But context is important in this case, and perhaps people are starting to comprehend to some degree why NFL players, especially Dolphins teammates, are predominantly in support of the accused rather than the accuser.
If nothing else, perhaps there's one silver lining that can emerge from this situation. From here on out, any player who even contemplates crossing that line of bullying will probably think twice.
If you would like to read more on this ongoing saga, Ben Volin of The Boston Globe gives what I believe is one of the more interesting takes you’ll find.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and currently covers the NFL for Bleacher Report