The culture in NFL locker rooms has come under public scrutiny since a rookie left the Miami Dolphins last week. Now the NFL has appointed a special counsel to investigate allegations of bullying between players, including the use of a racial slur.
The Dolphins indefintely suspended player Richie Incognito for “conduct detrimental to the team,” and called for a thorough investigation after allegations that player Jonathan Martin was driven from the team by harassment led by Incognito, including that he had used the n-word in text messages and voicemails sent to Martin, who is African-American.
“Hey, wassup, you half n—– piece of s—,” Incognito allegedly said to Martin in the voicemail, which also included threats to Martin’s mother according to an ESPN report. Incognito has denied those reports.
Asked about the allegations behind the voicemail Wednesday, Incognito would not directly comment, telling Miami station WSVN that he was merely “trying to weather the storm.”
The scope of the scandal grew Wednesday morning after the Sun Sentinel reported that multiple sources claimed coaches on the team encouraged Incognito’s bullying by telling him to “toughen” Martin up. Head coach Joe Philbin refused to respond to questions about those reports.
Coaches are ultimately responsible for the behavior of team members, says former New York Giants Head Coach Jim Fassel.
“My first question is, who approved the hiring of Ritchie Incognito?” Fassel said.
“Nothing is happening in this locker room that the coach is not giving either tacit or explicit approval of,” he said.
Denver Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton told USA Today that Martin crossed the line by taking the issue outside the locker room.
“I feel like, as players, when it is player-to-player, it can be handled as players. It can be addressed. I don’t think [Martin] should have gone outside the team and expressed how things are going in the locker room,” he said.
Dolphins’ quarterback Ryan Tannehill defended the locker room culture in a press conference Wednesday.
“We have each others’ backs,” he said, and denied that Ritchie would use the “type of language” he allegedly used in the voicemail in the locker room.
He also insisted that the relationship between the two players was supportive.
“If you had asked Martin a week before who his best friend on the team was, he would have said Ritche Incognito,” Tannehill said. He also said Incognito thought of Martin like a “little brother.”
“Right now we’re focused on sticking together as a team,” he said.
Asked if he could ever accept either player back to the team, he said he believed in forgiveness.
“I think what’s coming out of the Miami Dolphins today, it’s almost like the solidarity of bullies,” sportswriter Dave Zirin said of the response from Tannehill and other players. “But yesterday, players were saying off the record that they didn’t want to go on the record because Richie Incognito scared them, too. So which is it?”
Zirin finds it especially troubling that players would embrace Incognito as opposed to Martin, pointing to a recent ESPN report that he checked himself into a hospital to address his mental health issues.
“Are they siding with their teammate who’s in a mental health clinic, a person who showed the real courage to me, the real quote-unquote manhood to step up and break the code of silence and say what was happening?” he asked. “Or are they siding with the guy who left the threatening voicemails and dropped n-bombs? Look who they are siding with, that is a problem and that is a cultural problem in that locker room.”