Players: Hazing culture in NFL, beyond has to change

Miami Dolphins scandal highlights need to address bullying at all levels of sports, extracurricular activities

Richie Incognito, left, is said to have excessively hazed and bullied teammate Jonathan Martin.
Wilfredo Lee/AP

Until the recent hazing controversy involving offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and the inaptly surnamed Richie Incognito, Miami Dolphins second-year coach Joe Philbin had largely been perceived during his NFL tenure as a stand-up guy.

Philbin, 52, was regarded, even during his time as an assistant coach, as a man of moral fiber, social conscience and enlightened leadership, attributes frequently displayed during his 2012 appearances as a rookie coach on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series. And the bedrock principles and empathetic bent said to be part of Philbin’s makeup were believed to have been strengthened by the tragic death of his 21-year-old son, Michael, only 10 days before Joe Philbin was hired as the Dolphins’ field boss. Michael Philbin slipped through the ice of the Fox River in Wisconsin in January 2012, and his accidental death, reports revealed, was likely precipitated by alcohol and marijuana.

But if allegations of Incognito’s insensitive treatment of Martin are substantiated, the hazing probably occurred virtually under Joe Philbin’s nose. Given Philbin’s makeup, that is surprising to those who know him well.

It’s not so shocking, though, to many past and present players who are familiar with and understand the culture that is part of most NFL locker rooms.

“We’d be naive to think (hazing) doesn’t happen — and happen a lot — really no matter who is in charge,” said 17-year veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez of the Atlanta Falcons, who recently told local media there is “nothing out of bounds” in locker rooms. “Anyone who has been around for a while has witnessed it to some extent. I know people have said, ‘Well, it doesn’t happen here.’ But it does happen, probably everywhere.”

And likely at every level.

A recent study by Alfred University of hazing and bullying in high schools indicated that nearly half of the 1,600 survey respondents — all of whom participated in an extracurricular activity — had been subjected to some sort of hazing. And 43 percent described the hazing or bullying incidents as “humiliating.”

The survey more specifically showed that students who were members of a sports team were three times as likely (24 percent) to be hazed as those who belonged to music, art or theater groups (8 percent).

An earlier Alfred University survey of college students, conducted in the late 1990s, showed similar results — although the general level of hazing and bullying was not as prevalent. The University of Maine, in a 2003 survey of college students conducted in conjunction with the National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention, concluded that nearly half the respondents were victims of hazing, many of them identified as athletes.

The upshot of such studies: Athletes are just as susceptible to hazing as — and often more so than — chess-club members, debaters, participants in drama or glee clubs. And the incidents don’t occur only at the professional level.

Earlier this month, two football players from Hutchinson High School in Kansas were charged with aggravated battery after allegedly branding two freshman teammates with hot clothes hangers. TMZ recently aired a video that showed New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis, the 2012 first-round choice of the NBA franchise, being spanked while naked as part of a freshman hazing at the University of Kentucky. In 2012, four Los Angeles–area high school soccer players were arrested for allegedly sodomizing younger teammates with foreign objects as part of a hazing ritual.

“A little incongruous, maybe even unthinkable to some because it’s sports, but true that such things happen,” said Florida-based sports psychologist Allison Johnstone. “It’s kind of ironic because the perception of athletes is that they think they’re kind of invincible. Yet sometimes, they pick on the perceived (vulnerabilities) of some of their teammates, test their toughness. The testing they see as a part of team building, an initiation, I suppose. It’s probably considered harmless. But it can get out of hand, just like bullying can in any part of society.”

Learning lessons

The NFL, in cases typically involving drugs or crime, often cites statistics that examine how its rates of such incidents stack up against those in the population at large. But there are NFL players, like former linebacker Bart Scott, who concede that hazing might be a “little more prevalent” in league locker rooms.

Incognito’s remarks, both in print and in a recent Fox television interview, indicate that he feels his treatment of Martin was not out of the ordinary. Indeed, there is some anecdotal evidence that hazing in the NFL extends beyond such innocent acts as forcing rookies to carry veterans’ pads and helmets, buy doughnuts before the Saturday walk-through and pay for expensive meals and that it is widely accepted.

The victims are often players who, former Atlanta Falcons center Jamie Dukes said, are “seen as a little different.”

Martin, for instance, is biracial.

“Guys find a place to put in the needle, and they stick it in,” said Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, a college teammate of Martin’s at Stanford. “A lot of guys in the (locker) room laugh at it. But the (victims) sometimes don’t see it as funny. But I think the Martin thing has cast it in a new light and will definitely bring some solutions.”

There is probably no easy fix for the hazing and bullying problem in the NFL or at any level of sport. But a league spokesman suggested the NFL, at its annual rookie symposium, will further stress hazing prevention and the need to report incidents to coaches and club executives and perhaps use examples such as the death of Florida A&M drum major Robert Champion and the suicide of Lakeland, Fla., preteen Rebecca Sedwick to reinforce the implications. Champion collapsed and died after being beaten by fellow band members with fists and instruments in the band’s bus after a 2011 football game. Sedwick, 12, was the victim of excessive bullying that many believe led to her killing herself in September.

Changing the culture

The league will apparently attempt, in some ways, to de-emphasize the insular nature of the locker room, historically regarded by players as a sanctuary where coaches don’t often impose. The locker room, perhaps for too long, has been seen as what one player characterized as “a unique office.”

“It’s not like coaches aren’t welcome,” Sherman said, “but they sometimes don’t venture there.”

Coaches at several successful high school programs in Pittsburgh and suburban Atlanta told Al Jazeera that policing hazing begins with locker-room diligence.

Sherman said Jim Harbaugh, his coach at Stanford and now the San Francisco 49ers head coach, and his current coach in Seattle, Pete Carroll, maintain “strong presences” in the locker room, “even if they’re not there every day.”

“They create a climate where it becomes better self-policed by players,” Sherman said.

Both Harbaugh and Carroll have been adamant in the wake of the Miami controversy that hazing is not tolerated with their teams.

Several general managers and personnel directors noted this week that interviews with prospective draft choices will now include more questions about hazing, to perhaps better identify potentially problematic players. Incognito, the Martin conflict aside, has long been seen as a problem in some NFL quarters. His background includes dismissals from teams at the University of Nebraska and the University of Oregon, the latter before he ever got onto the field for the Ducks; admissions of alcohol and drug abuse; and a lack of discipline on the field, exemplified by excessive penalties and fights. 

In recent years, the NFL has been forced to confront a gun culture and a culture in which players routinely ignored concussion symptoms. Dealing with the hazing problem, said NFL Players Association president Domonique Foxworth, “is another step forward.”

It is one that Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin, another former teammate of Martin’s at Stanford, said is imperative.

“Look, (Martin) is a great guy, a tremendous person. He was never any problem,” said Baldwin, pointing to a text message he received from Martin in which his former teammate reported that he is coping as well as can be expected. “What hurts me is that there are people who are degrading Jonathan, as if he did something wrong. He’s no crybaby, so it must have been bad.

“We’re all supposed to be in this together, kind of an elite fraternity, right? You just can’t treat people — any people, but especially teammates — like that. It’s got to change here and everywhere else too.”

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