ASHBURN, Va. — Eleven seasons into his football career, Washington Redskins linebacker Nick Barnett figures he has a pretty good sense of the sort of teasing and hazing and horsing around that happens in the typical NFL locker room, especially when it comes to rookies.
They’re stuck with $5,000 dinner tabs. They’re told to tote the helmets or pads of older players. They’re held down and given unwanted haircuts or get their eyebrows shaved.
What he’s never heard of, Barnett said Tuesday, is the kind of accusations of out-and-out bullying and harassment at the heart of why second-year offensive tackle Jonathan Martin suddenly left the Miami Dolphins a week ago because of emotional distress, and why his linemate, Richie Incognito, was suspended indefinitely by the team.
“You have different people, different personalities, different cultures in here, and it’s not going to be the same as in an accountant’s office or Wall Street. Same as our armed forces,” Barnett said, standing at his locker after Washington’s practice. “But every social setting has its standards, and when (you) cross those standards ... especially with a guy who is 6-something-foot tall, 300 pounds ... not coming to practice because he feels bullied or whatever the case is, now we have an issue.”
While some players said they figure the NFL to make clear certain kinds of locker-room behavior won’t be tolerated, Commissioner Roger Goodell has so far been silent on the matter; a spokesman said the league is “currently engaged in a thorough review of the situation.” The players’ union issued a statement Tuesday saying it expects the NFL and teams to “create a safe and professional workplace for all players.”
According to two people familiar with the case, Incognito sent Martin racist and threatening text messages. The 319-pound Incognito, a ninth-year pro, is white. The 312-pound Martin, in his second NFL season, is biracial. It’s unclear whether Dolphins coaches or management knew of any issues between the pair before Martin left the team.
The curtains do get pulled back on this sort of thing in the NFL every so often and, as with most bits of news connected to the country’s most popular sports league, they garner quite a bit of attention.
During training camp last year, New York Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara was tossed into a tub of ice water by defensive lineman Jason Pierre-Paul. Amukamara had missed most of training camp with an injury a year earlier as a rookie, so perhaps this was a chance to make up for lost time; a teammate let the world in on the episode with a tweet.
“What I went through wasn’t bullying at all. It was just more of fun in the locker room. Of course, nobody’s going to be happy being thrown into a cold tub of water, but ... things can get out of hand sometimes,” Amukamara said this week.
Like several other players around the NFL, Amukamara latched onto two particular elements of the Miami situation that moved past normal fun and games: “Anything that’s racial or threatening, I think that’s in the definition of bullying,” he said.
Detroit Lions receiver Nate Burleson recalled a first-round draft pick with another team who signed a deal for tens of millions of dollars and was told to pay a $30,000 restaurant bill for others at his position.
“It happens a lot. But certain things remain in this league for a reason, and certain things start to phase themselves out,” Burleson said. “I don’t know if this is one of them.”
Some veterans, such as Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, consider such happenings a rite of passage they hope won’t disappear entirely, and within reason.
“Some of the younger guys come in and there’s a sense of entitlement, and you lose that work ethic, you lose that true veteran-led locker room sometimes,” said Allen, who said he’s seen teammates fork over $50,000 or more. “You got to know who you’re dealing with. You can’t treat everyone the same. You can’t treat every rookie the same.
“Some guys are more sensitive than others.”
And there are those who take the whole pecking-order system rather seriously.
“In our locker room, it’s simple: Do what we say and you won’t get hazed,” Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas said. “If you don’t, you get thrown in the cold tub or your shirt gets cut up.”
Several players said they think it’s up to players to prevent behavior that goes beyond good-natured ribbing.
That, they say, was the failure in Miami.
“Who was the leaders on that team?” Redskins linebacker London Fletcher said. “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. And that’s the biggest thing that disappointed me. ... There was not a veteran guy strong enough to stop what was happening.”
The irony, of course, is that Incognito was one of the oldest members of the Dolphins – only one player on the Week 1 roster had been in the league longer – and was voted to one of six spots on the team’s leadership council.
“How do you police it if you have your most-esteemed vets doing it?” Washington’s Barnett said. “Other vets have to have the responsibility and step up.”
One factor at play in Miami: There is something of a veteran leadership vacuum on the young Dolphins, perhaps in part because the best player, defensive end Cameron Wake, generally is a laid-back guy who is not inclined to assert himself.
“The locker room has been fine, as far as I’m concerned,” Wake said Monday, when details of the Martin-Incognito case emerged. “I can’t speak for anybody else.”
While no one on the Dolphins was critical of Martin, the Miami players who talked to the media on Monday were far more vocal in defense of Incognito than on behalf of Martin.
Dolphins rookie cornerback Will Davis said about Incognito: “He’s a funny guy. Everybody loves him.”
Among the many missing details is what – and when – Dolphins coach Joe Philbin knew about the Martin-Incognito relationship, because he did not intervene. Philbin says he was unaware until last weekend, when a representative of Martin’s complained to the team.
On Monday, Philbin declined to answer a question about the locker-room culture in Miami.
In any NFL city, a player such as Martin who felt harassed would be placed in the difficult position of not wanting to show weakness in the most gladiatorial of sports. And as last season’s bounty scandal showed, it’s difficult for a player to stand up on his own against behavior he thinks is wrong.
“It had to be pretty difficult for him to actually come forward,” Redskins left tackle Trent Williams said. “It’s not the most glamorous thing to say, ‘Hey, I’m getting bullied.’”
Players on other teams recounted stories this week of bringing breakfast sandwiches to players at their position or purchasing trays of food before road trips. But none revealed anything approaching the $15,000 that Martin reportedly coughed up for a Las Vegas trip other players took. Or the types of text messages apparently involved here.
Browns receiver Davone Bess, who used to play for the Dolphins, didn’t want to comment specifically on what happened with his former team, but acknowledged the macho environment of an NFL locker room can go too far.
“You’ve got some guys who really don’t care what others think,” Bess said. “You’ve got some guys who care what others think and things can be misinterpreted. It can go the wrong way real fast.”