I was hoping to not have to write about the Miami Dolphins and their locker room situation regarding Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito, but it has stayed in the news cycle and probably deserves comment.
There have been two different schools of thought regarding player interaction. Some have used this situation as an opportunity to criticize supposed “locker room culture” and what has been an accepted practice of mild hazing of young players. Others have said that much of the blame actually rests on Martin’s shoulders for not standing up for himself and allowing Incognito’s behavior to force him to reach his breaking point.
The first point has become pervasive among writers, while the second has been more commonplace in players. There is a lot to criticize regarding Incognito and the way he used constant belittling, intimidation and apparent bullying of Martin, who is obviously a more mild-mannered individual. But to say that Incognito is the rule, rather than the exception, is too large a leap. Instead of regarding the Miami fiasco as just that, a failure of leadership on multiple levels, a number of commentators and columnists have condemned all behavior that has any scent of hazing.
I think hazing at the youth level is deplorable and simply unnecessary. In high school, my school’s baseball team had its season canceled for a pretty severe hazing episode, and deservedly so. There’s a difference between older players leading by example and inappropriately taking advantage of their veteran status. But for young teams, there’s really no reason for high school seniors to be flexing authority over other kids who are just a year or two younger.
Yet applying that same philosophy to the pros, or even college, doesn’t make sense to me. I’m fine with veteran pros forcing rookies to carry equipment, sing fight songs during meals, even pay for the occasional group dinner. At that level, teams need to find ways to relate to one another and build chemistry. While others may consider these tasks unpleasant, they are more often a rite of passage that gives the players a sense of belonging once they’ve proven themselves. Veterans are aware of how to build camaraderie and younger players are no longer kids who need protection.
Not every NFL player is a meat head like Incognito and not every situation turns racial and threatening, so railing against what has been an accepted form of teammate behavior seems hyper reactionary. My argument is not that “it’s always been this way,” which never holds up over the long haul. My argument is that most workplaces have some level of hierarchy based on ability and experience. Tom in sales is the new guy, so he gets to work the Thanksgiving shift. Sports aren’t any different.
The problem is the two arguments have become too polarized and just plain incorrect. No, we don’t need to completely get rid of rookie hazing and “locker room culture.” And, no, people aren’t overreacting to this issue because too many women have gotten involved in sports, as San Francisco radio host Damon Bruce claimed. I’m sure Bruce is a super tough guy since he wants to remind women that sports are “his sandbox,” but all his idiotic ranting does is make the rational conclusion that much harder to see.
Richie Incognito found a weaker individual and abused his veteran status, something he has probably been doing since he was 15 years old. The Dolphins locker room apparently had the perfect mix of an experienced bully, a soft-spoken thoughtful teammate and little oversight from other players or coaches. Despite all that, I still think Jadeveon Clowney can carry a few bags, buy some doughnuts and sing the South Carolina fight song next year as a rookie.
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