By Ashley Dunkak
ALLEN PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Running around to get food for veterans, picking up their equipment, even paying the occasional five-figure dinner bill comprise part of the NFL rookie experience.
Those aspects of what second-year Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin endured are hardly unique. Older guys like Detroit Lions cornerback Rashean Mathis talk of being taped to goalposts or tied up and tossed in cold tubs – not pleasant experiences, to be sure, but not overly scarring either.
The voicemail that ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that longtime bad boy Richie Incognito left on Martin’s phone was something entirely different.
“Hey, wassup, you half n—– piece of s—. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] s— in your f—ing mouth. [I’m going to] slap your f—ing mouth. [I’m going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. F— you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”
As would be expected, locker room humor is hardly angelic. It is often crass, often profane, often awfully rude. What Incognito said, though, can in no way be passed off as him being funny.
“You have to be either two very far-out individuals to talk to somebody like that in a joking matter,” former Detroit Lion Lawrence Jackson said. “I don’t feel like that’s typical guy talk or guy horseplay by words. For people that are close to you, you may talk in some sort of fashion like that, but the level that he did, and the tone that he had is something that can’t be passed off as joking.”
While bullying is the larger story here, Jackson said the racial component is a significant one.
“I can tell you this,” Jackson said. “As a black guy, it’s never okay for a white guy to call me the n-word. Never.”
Some people are more tolerant of the word’s use in conversation when it is not directed at an individual, rather said in passing or for emphasis. Jackson is not in favor of the term no matter who says it.
“A lot of the islanders say it, and I don’t even like black people to say it,” Jackson said, “but there’s some people who will accept that and some people who won’t, but very few people I know will let somebody directly say it to them that’s not black.”
Two Lions on this year’s team, safety Louis Delmas and recently departed tight end Tony Scheffler, made national headlines earlier this year when a story came out about how the longtime teammates exchanged slurs (the n-word and “cracker,” respectively) in fun as part of their relationship. Many black players use the term regularly, and the word also appears frequently in the rap music to which many players listen, but the standards – which most understand clearly – are not the same across the board.
“There’s people on both sides of the fence. There’s Coke people and there’s Pepsi people,” Jackson said. “There are some guys who you are close with from another race where between the two of you, you may use those words in a sense of humor in terms of kind of joking saying it to highlight how ridiculous it is and how it’s brainless for people to use it, if that makes any sense. But … I don’t think that that’s acceptable.”
As far as the whole bullying situation, Jackson said it is common for veterans to be harder on rookies who resist their treatment. Mathis and Detroit wide receiver Nate Burleson, both of whom have played in the NFL for over a decade, seconded that reality.
All of them, however, agreed that Incognito went way over the line of what is acceptable.
“I’m a respecter of men, and that’s how I wanted to be treated when I came in the league,” Mathis said. “I understand I’m a rookie and I’m going to do everything you tell me, I’m going to hold my head up high and go about the ways of the team, but there definitely is a limit. There’s people all the time that overreach those boundaries.
“That’s just in life, period, treating people that they don’t feel are worthy of whatever accolades or position they’re getting and they feel like they’re the authority figure, but that’s not the way that life is supposed to be lived, whether it’s in football or in life in general or at the workplace,” Mathis continued. “You have to respect people for being adults. You have to respect people for being professionals.”
While many have faulted Incognito for being a bully, there has also been backlash against Martin for leaving the team instead of confronting Incognito or going to coaches. Some NFL players have spoken anonymously – embrace the irony there – about Martin being “weak,” “soft” and failing to “man up.”
Sometimes, though, standing up for oneself is not that easy, and sometimes problems continue even if a person does tell the bully to cut out the bad behavior.
“Everybody’s not that kind of guy that would just get into a fight,” Jackson said. “Some people, fighting isn’t their thing. And I’m pretty sure in some degree he stood up for himself, but I don’t feel like it necessarily had to go blows. I don’t feel like the situation necessarily had to go to blows, but I feel like to some degree he had to have stood up for himself.
“It’s hard for anybody to say what he should have done, especially if they’re doing it anonymously,” Jackson continued. “Some of those people don’t know what it feels like to be bullied or to go through that kind of stuff, so you can’t kind of speak on it. I’m sure there are guys who feel like, ‘Oh this is a brotherhood, you shouldn’t have done that, blah blah blah blah blah,’ but where were those guys at when it was happening in the locker room?”
Nationally, some have argued that the racial slur Incognito used is the main reason the situation is getting so much publicity and reaction. Jackson disagrees.
“The large thing is bullying,” Jackson said. “Kids kill themselves every day, pretty much, over bullying, and you have it in the most unlikely place of all, an NFL locker room. I think it just shines the light on that and people are very sensitive to that because they either have somebody that was being bullied or was bullied or know somebody who had somebody that was being bullied or is being bullied currently, so I think it is a very sensitive topic which is pushing the buttons of a lot of people.”
Not only is Incognito’s treatment of Martin fundamentally inappropriate, it is downright detrimental to the team as a whole, players agreed.
“You try to embrace those guys because you know what? We need those guys to win,” Raiola said. “You know what? Like them or not, they’re a part of the Detroit Lions and that’s family to me. I couldn’t see not treating them with respect.
“Our rookies on the O-line, they know what they have to do,” Raiola added. “We don’t ask much. Food, maybe, on Saturdays before the road games, cold water before meetings start, but we love those guys and we do keep them close to us because their growth is important to the success of this team.”
Clearly, Incognito had different priorities.