Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin scandal pulls back curtain on NFL locker room dynamics

The Post Sports Live crew discusses the suspension of Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito and why his racist and threatening text messages to teammate Jonathan Martin are not typical NFL hazing. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

The door swung open Tuesday afternoon, and in they came. Some of the Washington Redskins were quiet and businesslike; others were shouting and laughing as they pushed their way into an NFL locker room, one of sports’ most complex and misunderstood environments.

Defensive lineman and team captain Barry Cofield sat by himself, dressing quietly after practice. Wide receiver Santana Moss stood in the room’s center, this day’s loudest voice.

“This is like being at home, and your mom lets you have your friends over,” Moss said. “And you know your guys are going to raise hell in here and have the most fun, laugh and joke, play the way that nobody ever knows y’all can play, and you’ll never know about it.”

This is where 70 or so personalities, experiences and upbringings converge. And although different pockets of this tiny society handle life differently, each man is expected to coexist with his neighbor.

Last week, one of these societies tore itself apart. Miami Dolphins second-year tackle Jonathan Martin left the team after he reportedly was bullied by at least one teammate. The team indefinitely suspended veteran guard Richie Incognito for detrimental conduct after he reportedly left threatening and racist voice mails on Martin’s phone. The Dolphins and the NFL have said they will look into allegations of harassment in the workplace and player misconduct.

The Post Sports Live crew discusses the improved running game and Pierre Garçon's big day from the Redskins win over the San Diego Chargers. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

On Tuesday, the players’ union released a statement, insisting “on a fair investigation for all involved.”

“We expect that the NFL and its clubs create a safe and professional workplace for all players and that owners, executives, coaches and players should set the best standards and examples,” the NFLPA’s release stated. “It is the duty of this union to hold the clubs and teams accountable for safety and professionalism in the workplace.”

In one such workplace, Redskins players have heard about the situation in Miami. On Tuesday, they were asked how playful behavior can cross boundaries, becoming unprofessional or even damaging. When does light-hearted talk become demeaning, and how easily can hazing — a common rite of passage for young players — spiral out of control?

In Miami, Martin and others were reportedly forced to pay tens of thousands for team meals and trips, some of which they didn’t attend. Several tweets by Dolphins players indicated that young players recently paid a $30,000 dinner tab. The rookie minimum salary this season is about $400,000. In other cases, such as Martin’s, rookie hazing seemed to never ease. Reports suggest he left the team — and has since sought counseling — after a prank by teammates.

Young players are often made to carry veterans’ shoulder pads and helmets, and on some teams, veterans shave rookies’ heads or force them to sing fight songs during team meetings. Al Saunders, an Oakland Raiders assistant who has spent nearly 30 years as an NFL coach, said he deters any form of hazing because some young players skip dinners or meetings to avoid ridicule — impeding the team-building the rites ostensibly were meant to promote.

“Just because you can lift a house doesn’t mean you’re not emotionally fragile,” Saunders said.

Drawing the line

Just as often, the customs hit youngsters’ wallets rather than tired arms or unusual hairstyles. Washington defensive lineman Kedric Golston, an eight-year veteran, said he was made to pick up breakfast sandwiches for teammates during his rookie year, and he and two others split a $2,500 dinner bill for defensive line teammates. The idea suggests a welcome-to-the-NFL moment, but Golston said the way a youngster reacts can offer hints at his commitment to teammates.

“To see where a person’s mind-set is as far as his team philosophy, or you can be really trying to make him look silly. That’s where I think the line is drawn,” said Golston, adding that later in his rookie season, 2006, veteran players repaid the newcomers by springing for a far larger dinner tab.

The Dolphins’ ordeal seemed to be ongoing, with some players refusing to ease pressure on newcomers, no matter how agreeable they were. The Miami Herald cited a source who described a culture in which veterans continually demanded money from younger players, with intimidation or threats implied if the youngster refused. In Incognito’s alleged profanity- and slur-laced voice mails, he threatened to slap Martin’s mother and “kill” his 24-year-old teammate, calling him “still a rookie.”

Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said this week that he hasn’t experienced such a situation in 20 seasons as a head coach.

“Every team is a little bit different,” Shanahan said Tuesday. “I think the situation we are talking about in Miami is really a unique situation. I read a little bit more over the last 12 hours, actually what’s been transpiring. That’s quite unusual. I’ve never heard of anything like that before.

“So, to compare that with most locker rooms in the NFL, I wouldn’t even make a comparison there because I don’t think it happens very often.”

Nonetheless, Washington’s player development director, Malcolm Blacken, speaks with players each day and monitors locker room culture. Blacken or team leaders would be expected to share concerns with Shanahan.

Veteran linebacker London Fletcher said Tuesday he suspects that is where the breakdown occurred with the Dolphins.

“What seemed like was going on there was beyond hazing, beyond your normal rookie-type deals,” Fletcher said. “So I’m real disappointed in the leadership in the locker room down there in Miami. . . . I know Jonathan Martin didn’t feel comfortable enough to go to any of the guys because either you’re encouraging it or you’re just turning a blind eye and allowing the guy to get treated like he was getting treated.”

Different approaches

Like any society, there are different instincts on how to handle such treatment. Some Washington players thought Martin was correct in stepping away, but others suggested the move showed weakness — and that his decision could affect whether he’s accepted in future locker rooms.

Moss, who said he was bullied as a child because of a speech impediment, said that if he had experienced what Martin had, he would’ve reacted like he did in elementary school, when others ridiculed him for stuttering.

“Bust him in his mouth,” Moss said. “He’ll leave you alone.”

He admitted, though, that this would have been his unique approach.

For his part, rookie cornerback David Amerson smiled when he discussed his own experience. Bacarri Rambo, a first-year safety, was recently made to pick up the check when the defensive backs went to dinner. Amerson said he hasn’t yet had his turn.

“I know it’s coming,” he said.

Amerson added that he hoped the tab, whenever it comes, is no more than $1,500. If it’s much more, he said, then he’d refuse. Maybe they’d all wash dishes together, he said, and it’s impossible to know if his resolve would earn him respect or scorn. Amerson said he knows only his own way.

“At the end of the day, you are a man. You’ve got to stand up for yourself,” he said. “I’m just big on not letting anybody bully me. I understand rookie stuff. I’ll do this here and there.

“But when it goes too far, you’ve got to stand up for yourself.”

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