Did Coaches Encourage Incognito's Bullying?

Hazing and bullying are commonly found in schoolyards and fraternities. But pro sports? The NFL is investigating possible harassment within the Miami Dolphins between veteran guard Richie Incognito and offensive tackle Jonathan Martin. Host Michel Martin speaks with sportswriter Kevin Blackistone about the culture of bullying and hazing within the NFL.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, actress Kerry Washington was a centerpiece of a skit on "Saturday Night Live" this past weekend that took on those who've been criticizing the show for its lack of diversity. Well, if "SNL" couldn't find any women of color to do sketch comedy, we somehow managed to find two veteran performers who will be with us later to tell us their stories.

But first, we want to talk about this unfolding story about bullying and possibly bias in the National Football League. Miami Dolphins' lineman Jonathan Martin has taken a leave of absence from the squad. At first, it wasn't clear why, but then he turned over threatening text messages and racist voicemails allegedly left for him by veteran guard, Richie Incognito. Now the coach of the team later made a strong statement denouncing the alleged conduct and bullying in general, along with a number of prominent sports commentators, but others across the league, (missing audio) said, in essence, he should man up. We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called Kevin Blackistone. He's a sports writer and journalism professor at the University of Maryland. He's also a regular on our weekly Barbershop roundtable. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Thank you.

MARTIN: What is it that seemed to have pushed Jonathan Martin to leave the team, at least temporarily?

BLACKISTONE: I think that he was ostracized. When he sat down at the lunch table and everybody around him got up and walked away. I mean, that is demeaning, that's troubling, especially when these are supposed to be your - your brothers in the band, right? That they would leave you hanging like that. And that seems to...

MARTIN: And why did they do that?

BLACKISTONE: It must have been some sort of continuation of the hazing of him as a rookie, which is mind-boggling, given that he's been there now a season and a half. And he's a starter. He's an important part of the team. And he was highly thought of coming out of college.

MARTIN: Out of Stanford.

BLACKISTONE: Right.

MARTIN: Now, there are certain things that we just cannot say in this forum...

BLACKISTONE: Right.

MARTIN: ...But I do feel it's important to give people a sense of the - what he turned over to the team...

BLACKISTONE: Sure.

MARTIN: ...And to the league to describe what was going on. And one of them is a - there's a transcript of a voicemail that Richie Incognito allegedly left for him and it says, hey what's up you half N-word piece of expletive. I saw you on Twitter. You've been training 10 weeks. I want to expletive in your expletive mouth. I'm going to expletive your effing mouth. I'm going to slap your real mother across the face. And it goes on and on from there. So anyway, to sort of give you the point. You've been covering sports for decades, is this hazing - is this kind of thing rare, or...

BLACKISTONE: This is - no, this is an aberration. Now, I have never seen one player attack another player quite like this. In fact, I've never seen it like that. Usually, it's a team thing. Usually, it's something that happens and you move on after, it's considered to be a rite of passage of sorts. But this is personal. This is beyond the locker room. It's beyond the field and it's troubling in a lot of ways.

What is really - what really struck me in the beginning was how the players on this team and the coaching staff could've elevated the player - Richie Incognito - into a leadership role in this team, given that he has a rap sheet longer than he is tall that goes back to high school. He's been kicked off of two teams, one in college, one in the pros. He's been a pariah just about everywhere he's been. He should not be a leader of your team, and I cannot believe that the coaching staff did not know that this was going on and they should have not been tacit supporters of it, but they should've squashed it immediately.

MARTIN: To your point, he was actually asked to star in this public service announcement for fans. I just want to play it for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC ANNOUNCEMENT)

RICHIE INCOGNITO: While at our stadium today, we greatly appreciate you guys being loud and proud for the Dolphins, but please be respectful and civilized and be sure to follow the fan code of conduct.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Please, do not use foul or abusive language. Intoxication, fighting, taunting or threatening remarks and gestures are prohibited.

INCOGNITO: Thank you for following our fan code of conduct. Anything less would be uncivilized.

MARTIN: So what message do you draw from that? I mean, at first, people thought, I think, it was kind of tongue-in-cheek because they know he's got a reputation. But - so what do you make of that, using him in that ad?

BLACKISTONE: What I make of it is that the Miami Dolphins have no leadership on their team in the locker room, among their coaches, or with that franchise. And you cannot have this individual be a spokesperson for your team in any shape or form.

MARTIN: But I have to ask you, though, Kevin, about the fact that we've seen a number of interviews in ensuing days from players on this team - and other teams - who say that Jonathan Martin was wrong for taking locker room business out of the locker room, and they also say that he should have handled it...

BLACKISTONE: Right.

MARTIN: ...Perhaps in a physical way.

BLACKISTONE: Sure.

MARTIN: I mean, in a schoolyard way, which is take him outside. And...

BLACKISTONE: And we cannot forget the fact that the cauldron of masculinity is no hotter - boils no hotter - than it does with football, in particular, in the National Football League. And so, sure, you understand that. There was an incident here with the Washington football team a few years ago, where a player was being taunted by another player and it was caught on videotape, and he went over and beat the guy into a pulp - into the ground. That is the way...

MARTIN: And did that end it?

BLACKISTONE: That ended it. But that is the way that the football players believe they are to respond to certain things. It's not to - it's not to go to the coach or go to HR and file your complaint. But Jonathan Martin is a different kind of cat. He doesn't fit into this into this paradigm. He doesn't fit into this mold.

MARTIN: Well, why do you think it is that the team eventually did have the public response that it did? It seemed initially to be rather dismissive of him...

BLACKISTONE: Right.

MARTIN: ...But now they've made this very strong statement, and it does appear that the league is going to take further action. I mean, he has been suspended. Why do you think this change of tone?

BLACKISTONE: Because I think the public is now looking at it. I think they're under pressure from the National Football Players Association, which has to be sure that all of its members have a workplace to ply their craft in which, you know, it's not abusive. And so they're under a lot of pressure. And this is a young coaching staff, a new coach, and I think he's in a very tenuous position all of a sudden.

MARTIN: Does - I wanted to ask you, in the minute we have left, about the future for both of these players. I mean, Richie Incognito's been suspended.

BLACKISTONE: Right.

MARTIN: Many people say he'll never wear a Dolphin's uniform again. But what about Jonathan Martin, given that there are people who criticized his handling of the situation?

BLACKISTONE: You know, as soon as this thing happened, I thought to myself that there are a lot of players in the league who will say that they would rather be with - they would rather lineup next to Incognito than next to Martin, because they will look at Martin as being a quitter, which makes him weak, and Incognito as a bully, which makes him strong. It is a very odd thing within the National Football League.

MARTIN: What do you think, if you don't mind my asking?

BLACKISTONE: I think - I think they will both be in the league. Incognito's a Pro Bowl player. Offensive linemen are critical. And Jonathan Martin was highly thought of coming out of Stanford. Second-year player, he started every game since he's been in the league. I think that they'll both be back.

MARTIN: Will this change anything about locker room dynamics?

BLACKISTONE: I don't think so because I think it is an aberration, but I think it will force teams to look at the behavior in their locker rooms and make sure that it won't happen to them.

MARTIN: That was sportswriter and journalism professor, Kevin Blackistone. A regular in our Barbershop roundtable, joining us from our Washington, D.C. studios. Kevin Blackistone, thanks for joining us.

BLACKISTONE: Thank you.

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