Poets on Sports

Richie Incognito: NFL Jackass of the Year

by Karissa Morton

Here’s a recap of the disaster of a situation that’s currently taking place in Miami:

Jonathan Martin–an offensive lineman in his second year in the NFL–suddenly quit the team, initially saying he needed to deal with some “emotional issues.”  It quickly came out that those “emotional issues” were linked to Richie Incognito–a fourth-year Dolphin, ninth-year NFLer, & infamous asshole.  Martin accuses Incognito of bullying & harassing him in multiple ways, including via the latest method that’s come to light–text messages filled with racial & sexual slurs & threats against Martin & his family.

Jonathan Martin on the sidelines  (Wilfredo Mann/AP)

Jonathan Martin on the sidelines (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

The Dolphins initially said that Martin ran out of the room after a “lunch room prank” & hadn’t returned, blaming his reaction on vague “emotional issues.”  I understand that the Miami Dolphins are a professional organization who needs to cover its own ass, but the minimalization of these claims is disgusting.  In their official statement, the team said that “The notion of bullying is based on speculation and has not been presented to us as a concern from Jonathan or anyone else internally.”

Here’s the thing–the Miami Dolphins are acting like the high school principal who protects star athletes at the cost of everyone else.  (See: my high school.)  So because the kid who wasn’t getting beaten up & taunted & put in garbage cans & called “faggot” didn’t file an official complaint about it, everything’s peachy?  That’s not how it works.  You, as the leader of an organization–whether that’s a high school or a professional football team–need to have your finger on the pulse of that environment for which you are responsible.  Even more importantly, if instances of bullying come to light, the thing to do is not brush it off & act like it’s no big deal.  It’s not to cover your own asses or the asses of the bullies (or accused bullies) before worrying about the victim.

And that “lunch room prank?”  It’s come out that Incognito & other veteran players had been bullying rookies into paying for things for them–from drinks to elaborate meals to trips.  This particular table of players all got up to leave as soon as Martin sat down, having been making fun of him for being pressured into giving Incognito $15,000 for a trip to Vegas that he didn’t even attend.  (Martin says he feared retribution from Incognito if he didn’t fork over the cash.)  I’m sorry, but being extorted doesn’t equal a “lunch room prank.”

To the Dolphins’ credit, a few hours after their initial statement, they released a second one, explaining that they’d received details from Martin’s lawyer about these instances of “player misconduct.”  A few hours after that statement, they suspended Incognito.  Once the clear accusations came out, the Dolphins acted hastily to get rid of Incognito–as they should have.  I personally hope that now that Philbin has the transcripts of Incognito’s threatening messages, he removes the suspension in order to just outright release him.  (Practically, this barely matters, though, since Incognito is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season & there’s no way the Dolphins will resign him after all of this.  A full release still needs to happen symbolically, regardless.)

“Everything tastes better when rookies pay for it” (Jared Odrick/Twitter)

But the more that comes out about this situation, though, this appears to be an institutional problem that extends beyond this one player.  Multiple reports, including those from ESPN & the Miami Herald, detail the so-called “rookie tax” wherein rookies were regularly charged upwards of $30,000 for team dinners.  Herald reporter Adam Beasley even accused veteran players of “using younger players at ATMs.”  There is tangible proof of this happening–including Jared Odrick’s Twitter account that includes photos of lavish team dinners captioned “everything tastes better when rookies pay for it.”

Maybe it sounds silly to be worrying about the expenses of people who make upwards of half-a-million dollars a year, but that’s not the point.  The point is that these accusations–from psychological harassment to extortion to racially-motivated attacks (& who knows what else may come out in the next few days)–appear to be indicative of the larger culture of the Miami Dolphins as a institution.

On Jim Rome’s show today, callers were recommending that Martin should have just “punched [Incognito] in the mouth” & that this would have taken care of the problem.  This thought process, though, is a symptom of the same kind of a culture that allows bullies like Incognito to flourish.  Rome’s rather intelligent response was that this wouldn’t have solved anything–especially when it comes to someone like Incognito–& would have just landed Martin an assault & battery charge, which wouldn’t have been worth it.  I couldn’t agree more.  When you sign up to do a job–whether that job is teacher or police officer or professional football player–you should be able to have a work environment conducive to doing the job you are paid to do.  You shouldn’t have to pre-plan an attack regarding how to deal with a workplace bully.  You shouldn’t have to walk on eggshells, not knowing if some asshole is going to exclude you or extort you or call you a racial slur or knock you out today.

As someone who was actively bullied throughout my grad school years, I can tell you that bullying happens to adults.  Not only this, but it’s far worse when you’re an adult.  Suddenly, it’s not about someone swiping the orange jello from your lunchbox or not inviting you to a pool party.  It’s attacking.  It’s meant to grind you down to nothing–to damage your career, your reputation, your relationships, your self-esteem.  According to a recent CDC survey, adult bullying affects an estimated 12 million Americans in the workplace.  At 12 million people, I’d think adult bullying qualifies as an epidemic.  This is not about survival of the fittest.  This is not about developing a thicker skin.  Victim-blaming & victim-shaming are not the right courses of action here, yet that’s exactly what sports radio callers are calling for when they blame Martin for not knocking Incognito out, & when the Dolphins higher-ups blame him for not coming to them to file a complaint sooner.  Martin is not a weakling–either physically or intellectually.  He’s an imposing, educated guy.  This is not indicative of a problem with Martin.  The problem is with Richie Incognito.

Richie Incognito (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

It wasn’t like Incognito’s issues with being a bully (to put it nicely) & a raging, immature, out-of-control asshole (to put it honestly) weren’t well-documented before the Dolphins signed him.  What interests me is why teams invest in players like Richie Incognito–ones who have well-documented issues both on-and-off the field.

He was kicked off the team at Nebraska because of multiple fights with teammates, opponents, & random students.  He then moved to Oregon, but never played there because he was cut for “not meeting unspecified conditions.”  Coach Mike Bellotti elaborated, noting that he had only initially permitted Incognito to join the team at Oregon under the conditions that he completed anger management courses & followed a strict code of conduct.  Presumably, these conditions were the ones unmet.

He then signed with the St. Louis Rams–where he gave himself the nickname “The Sheriff” because he claimed he’d take it upon himself “to dish out justice” to anyone who messed with his running back or quarterback.  With the Rams, he was repeatedly fined for such upstanding infractions as “repeated verbal abuse of officials,” “major face-mask violations,” & “chop blocks.”  He was released from the team after accumulating two personal fouls (both for headbutting an opponent after a play) in one game, & then getting in a major verbal confrontation with Coach Steve Spagnuolo.  During that 2009 season, he racked up six unnecessary roughness charges–as well as a stiff fine & warning from the NFL that he ran the risk of being suspended if he didn’t shape up.  That year, he was also labeled “The NFL’s Dirtiest Player.”  Rather than being taken aback by this, Incognito wore it as a point of pride, claiming that other players “didn’t care for his intensity level.”  It wasn’t just other players, though–he readily snapped at the local media, harassed & taunted fans, & did interviews wherein he bashed everything about St. Louis.  The Bills hesitantly picked him up off the waiver wire after the Rams dropped him, but ultimately decided to release him after only three games because of his “excessive penalties.”

Yet… the Dolphins swooped him up–only to be met with a plethora of issues & fines for the same types of behavior he’d exhibited at Nebraska, Oregon, & St. Louis.  What made Miami think they could change him?  And perhaps more importantly, what kind of a message does it send when teams gladly draft players who engage in such vile on-&-off-field antics?  Trevor Pryce puts it nicely on FOX Sports today, in saying it blatantly–everyone knows that “Richie Incognito is a jackass.  And he’s not even that good!”

Today on CBS Sports Radio, Jeff Darlington attempted to dissuade the Incognito critics, explaining that he’d written the well-known NFL Media piece over him, & that via that process, he came to know Incognito as a man who’d struggled with depression, drugs, & being bullied as a child.  Shocker–the bully was bullied.  What stuck out to me as I read that Darlington piece was the quote from Incognito’s father about his then-elementary-school-aged son.  Though Darlington is quick to counter it by calling Incognito, Sr. sweet, kind, & loving, the quote still stands out:

“Richie started his career on defense, as a nose tackle,” said his father, Richie Incognito, Sr.  “So he’d always be lined up across from the center.  Not one single time–literally, not one time–did the kid going up against Richie last beyond halftime.  Not one time.  Those kids were physically and mentally beaten.  They would either get hurt or tap out.  I’d always tell Richie, ‘You don’t take no shit from anyone.  If you let anyone give you shit now, you’re going to take shit your entire life.”

I couldn’t help but wonder about how this approach influenced Incognito’s game as a child & adolescent.  Just as Incognito was proud of being labeled the league’s dirtiest player, his father was proud when he “physically and mentally beat” other children every single time he played.  I understand that there are certain expectations for successful tackles & certain excuses made for defensive players (including in the NFL), but to me, this seems a bit over-the-top for a child.  He wanted his son to hurt other kids.  He trained him to believe that not physically dominating others meant that he was “taking shit.”

Richie Incognito (Joe Rimkus, Jr./Miami Herald)

Clearly, no one can blame someone’s parents for all of their adult actions–& I certainly don’t aim to do that with Incognito.  But we similarly can’t assume that one’s childhood has no influence on them & on their adult reactions & coping mechanisms.  Pride, acclaim, success–those were apparently gained via physically dominating others for Incognito.  Is it any wonder that so many of his issues in the NCAA & NFL are rooted in physical violence?

He had an unfortunate childhood of being bullied by his peers.  His way out was football, & in that game, he was taught (by his father) that physical domination to the point of injuring others was the way to play the game.  When he escapes bullying & unpopularity via physically dominating others, of course it’d look like a golden ticket.  In adulthood, though, having no coping mechanisms &/or conflict resolution skills minus punching people in the face is dangerous.  (Take it from me–I know.)  It makes sense that Incognito would turn to drugs to “self-medicate” (by his own admission) in order to calm down & escape.

My first instinct in terms of conflict management is almost always physical violence.  Lots of factors go into that, but I say it because I know that especially when I get charged up or competitive, it’s easy for that side of me to slip out.  I completely understand how someone like Richie Incognito–someone who clearly has a temper & lacks coping mechanisms or impulse control–can not mean to be as violent as he or she is being.  This doesn’t excuse it.  This doesn’t make Incognito’s behavior over the past decade-plus okay.  He’s a person who’s been failed by many people & circumstances–particularly those that have given him such a warped sense of what it means to be “a man.”  But he is also an adult who’s apparently had help extended to him multiple times.  He needs to take responsibility for his actions–something he seems staggeringly resistant to doing.

Fotor110418289His now-deleted Tweets at ESPN, CBS, FOX, NBC, & multiple reporters show him denying any wrongdoing, accusing them of slandering his name, & attacking their journalistic integrity.  In one Tweet, he even threatens Adam Schefter, including the hashtag #BRINGIT.  Clearly this is not at all the right way to go about this.  Hey, Richie, bullying people is not the right way to show that you’re not a bully!

At this point, though, it can hardly matter what he says.  Even if he sucked up his huge ego & apologized (& there’s no chance in hell of that happening), I can’t see any way he ever plays another game in Miami–& rightfully so.  All we can hope now is that the rest of the NFL finally sees this pattern of conduct & refuses to give him yet another undeserved chance.

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About Karissa

Karissa Morton is originally from Des Moines, Iowa & currently lives in Denton, Texas. She's a poet/sportswriter/teacher/editor who loves American Horror Story, X-Files, Hannibal, football, basketball, fantasy sports, Jeopardy, poker, horse racing, craft beer, learning Danish, & cats. If you want to talk about Jessica Lange being the one true god, then she's your girl.

One comment on “Richie Incognito: NFL Jackass of the Year

  1. Lauren
    November 5, 2013

    Wow. What a fabulously written article. I am so rarely moved to comment, but I’m really impressed by how thoroughly this article covered this story – and the tone is right on. Agreed agreed agreed.

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