NFL Scandal Reveals Blurry Line Between Bonding And Bullying

The NFL is investigating allegations of hazing by a Miami Dolphins player against his teammate. Many in the league believe better performance can be achieved through peer-led actions that will "toughen up" perceived weaker members of the team. Do these methods work and what's considered crossing the line?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now to another big story out of Miami this week: the football saga of Dolphins lineman Jonathan Martin. He met today with the NFL lawyer who's looking into charges of locker-room hazing, and worse. Meanwhile, Richie Incognito, the teammate accused of being Martin's tormentor, filed a grievance against the Dolphins. He's been suspended from play, and claims that that suspension is unfair.

Incognito, along with players past and present, insist that hazing is common in the NFL because it toughens young players, and it helps the team. For more on those claims, here's NPR's Mike Pesca.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: An NFL locker room is a workplace like no other, we've been consistently told during the Martin-Incognito story. Physicality, mercilessness, and an indifference to pain are prized. Weakness is seen as a contagion. Rookies are made to perform menial tasks and show subservience, to prove they belong.

Roman Oben, who played 12 years in the NFL, has a master's degree in public administration and has interned with congressmen. He's a thoughtful guy, but he says that if fans love this physical game, they need to accept some of these rites of passage.

ROMAN OBEN: I'm critical on the viewers to say, we accept the other parts of the game but now, we have this discussion if carrying pads helps the team cohesion? Yes, it does - 100 percent - because you - if you're a rookie, if you start from the bottom, you indoctrinate yourself into the culture. And then you go from there.

PESCA: And Oben says members of the offensive line - as Martin and Incognito were - see themselves as the grittiest, the strongest and most resilient of all the player groups.

OBEN: The position itself is really a team within a team. It's like soldiers. Like, what they have to go through to be a good offensive lineman, it's a lot different than just throwing a guy out there and throwing him the ball.

PESCA: Soldiering, talk of warriors and military analogies are pretty common in this discussion, but they're not exactly precise. Army Col. Irving Smith directs the sociology department at West Point; meaning he thinks about leadership, and trains cadets to think about leadership. Smith says the West Point of today is not marked by older students haranguing or threatening the younger ones.

IRVING SMITH: The most competent leaders that they had - the people who clearly, are influencing people by providing purpose, motivation and direction - are not people that are in their faces yelling at them. There are people who are more transformational in their approach to leading people.

PESCA: So it may seem that Smith is disagreeing with Colgate professor Caroline Keating, whose experiments show that hazing, in some senses, works. Keating asked athletes and fraternity members to self-report their hazing; and she also conducted an experiment where students were made to perform increasingly degrading charades, like pretending to be a dog greeting another dog. Not so different than asking an NFL player to wear ridiculous outfits, or to endure a prank.

CAROLINE KEATING: And we found that the harsher the treatment, the stronger the group identity.

PESCA: However - and this is why Keating and Col. Smith are really on the same page - the studies show that while hazing makes individuals want to take a bullet or play through pain by heightening the importance of the group, hazing simultaneously makes the hazed feel insignificant, and without agency. Keating also found - and this surprised her - that there were some individuals who were hard to haze. The hazing just didn't take. The hard to haze internalized the torment instead of seeing it as a sacrifice towards a goal.

KEATING: They attributed their behavior to, oh my gosh, you know, here I am being a jerk again. The other students who were more self-confident, in a way, actually read their behavior as, oh my gosh, if I'm doing these embarrassing behaviors, this group must really mean a lot to me.

PESCA: It's worth noting that Jonathan Martin - the Stanford classics major - came from a privileged, which is to say, unusual, background for NFL players; and was called Jonathan Weirdo by Richie Incognito. Soon, the NFL will have to decide whether to punish Incognito, the Dolphins; or put in place rules or guidelines, in an attempt to change the entire culture of the locker room.

Mike Pesca, NPR News.

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