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Throw Book At Him: NFL Needs to Punish Bullies

The thug named Richie Incognito needs to be out of the NFL for a long time, maybe even permanently. The Miami Dolphins suspended Incognito this week, and that’s merely a good start. This guy is no mere bully; that’s a schoolyard word that doesn’t come close to describing the racist, menacing, strong-arm shakedown of his own teammate, Jonathan Martin.

Imagine if you received threatening text messages from a colleague at work, hurling vile racial epithets at you along with a promise to “kill you.” What would you do? First, you would call company security, and then you might call the cops. But because this was the NFL, second-year player Martin thought he had to take it, otherwise he would be called soft. Finally, Martin simply walked away from the Miami Dolphins — an act that is looking more manly and dignified by the second.

Turns out the real tough guy is Martin, whose decision to rebel against a vicious culture in the Dolphins locker room has triggered a league-level investigation of Incognito, and, if reports are true, needs to extend to other veteran players and management as well. Let’s be clear: This isn’t about the wussifcation of football, or about some light hazing of rookies, short-sheeting their beds or shaving their heads. It’s about an image the league has been trying desperately to change in recent years, and that Incognito personifies: players as conscienceless gangsters who play a game of uncontrolled violence, with sadism and excess as byproducts.

The worst part of this story for the NFL is the suggestion that there is a lingering subterranean culture in which thuggery is not just tolerated but rewarded, while restraint is seen as weak. Martin, a second-year starter out of Stanford, was for days characterized by his own management as an oversensitive victim who couldn’t take petty lunchtime bullying and had left the team with an emotional “illness.” But the Dolphins suddenly went into crisis mode Sunday, suspending Incognito around midnight for “conduct detrimental to the team” and asked for a full NFL investigation. That’s because they finally realized what they have on their hands: Couple Incognito’s threatening messages to Martin with complaints from Dolphins rookies to the Miami Herald that they were pressured to pick up tabs of $30,000 for veteran players’ binges at strip clubs, and an ESPN report that Incognito forced Martin to pay $15,000 for a trip to Las Vegas, and this doesn’t look like “hazing” anymore. It looks like extortion and intimidation.

What’s next? Will Incognito feed the snitch into a cement mixer and bury him in a parking lot?

This story has sickened people across all boundaries in the league, as well it should. Prediction: Incognito’s case won’t produce the kind of player-commissioner tension we’ve seen over other disciplinary issues. If Roger Goodell wreaks his full powers on Incognito, it’s hard to imagine anyone complaining he is too harsh. Incognito deserves due process, but the documentary evidence of his abusive threats to Martin is apparently plain and incontrovertible, and so is his past.

Fellow players annually vote him one of the dirtiest competitors in the league, an eye-gouger who has had issues on virtually every team he ever played for. He was suspended for off-field behavior at Nebraska, and in four years with the St. Louis Rams, he was penalized 38 times, including seven times for unnecessary roughness and was waived in 2009 after earning head-butting penalties and getting in a screaming match with then-coach Steve Spagnuolo. He has been fined and warned by the league that he was courting suspension. Now this.

The NFL is a hard enough profession without guys like Incognito making it harder. The NFL Players Association has worked for years to build solidarity and persuade older players to teach younger ones how to take care of themselves and their money, given the rate at which their health is shattered. Union head DeMaurice Smith has said, “All players have a responsibility to each other.” The league executive office has done the same under vice president Troy Vincent, who has worked exhaustively on “player engagement” programs that preach mentorship and a sense of mutual responsibility.

Incognito’s abuse of a talented young player, a teammate who literally had to stand side by side with him every day, must be equally appalling to both sides, as must be the fact that he was actually a team leader and his attitude appeared to be catching.

The saddest part of all? Rookies under the last collective bargaining agreement actually surrendered millions of dollars in income to support older players. Jonathan Martin was already paying Incognito, without a shakedown. Yet no one on the Dolphins roster seems to recognize that. Recently fourth-year Miami player Jared Odrick tweeted a picture of a Henry VIII-sized banquet table loaded with food, and wrote, “Everything tastes better when a rookie pays for it.” In an interview with the Herald, one young Dolphin player anonymously claimed he is literally going broke as a result of the system Dolphin vets called a “virgin tax,” because he felt unable to say “no” to demands for payment from guys such as Incognito.

Incognito and his ilk are not the NFL’s representative men — you hope. In any other profession, someone who threatened and extorted a co-worker would be unemployable. The league is full of good guys and good teammates who play football with exquisite self-control, including the half-dozen players who have signed on to nationwide anti-bullying campaigns. If anyone is representative of the league’s best side, it’s Martin, who had the strength to walk away, even knowing what people might say. The league wants and needs to foster more men like Martin — and a good way to do it is by throwing the book at Incognito.