The hazing incident between offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin is certainly alarming. It could drastically change how the NFL polices the relationships between players, even teammates. The question football fans need to ask themselves, however, is a somewhat disturbing one: Is anyone really surprised? Sure, Incognito’s racially charged voicemails and text messages were disgusting, and the approximate $10,000 players paid for a team dinner as part of their unofficial “rookie tax” is a huge sum of money for players who are taking their first steps towards building a career in sports. While this may be an incident of extreme hazing, there’s no question that bullying is deeply entrenched in the culture of football. But I think it’s impractical and useless to try to completely eradicate bullying. At this point, trying to eliminate it may be a lost cause since it is such a huge, albeit abusive, part of NFL culture. If the NFL wants to take steps towards addressing this problem, it shouldn’t start by imposing suspensions or player or team fines for violators of a bullying-type policy. The league needs to open dialogue with its players and ideally get at the core reasons why bullying exists in the first place. But, unfortunately, the players feel bullying serves a valuable purpose. The NFL needs to understand what the goals of hazing are and try to replace bullying with more positive methods of communication amongst teammates.
Bullying has been a part of the NFL culture for decades as players look to “toughen up” one another. A teammate earns respect and praise when exhibiting toughness. Sometimes, players prove their strength by playing through injury, such as quarterback Byron Leftwich, who led his team to a comeback victory on a broken tibia while in college. Brett Favre also earned the respect of players by “toughing out” 297 consecutive games played. Alternatively, players could earn the respect of his teammates by undergoing a certain amount of hazing. The hazing incident involving Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant in 2010 exemplifies this point. Bryant refused to carry the pads of teammate Roy Williams at practice and was told he needed to take his team out to dinner to make up for his refusal. He did so and the dinner put a nice $54,000 dent in his wallet. Bullying has become a tool for earning the respect of teammates. It calls for rookies to “pay their dues” and honor the privileges of veterans. It’s become a form of acceptance.
These reasons don’t justify the demoralizing and dehumanizing nature of hazing, but they explain why it’s an integral part of the football culture. Another purpose bullying serves for NFL players is that it humbles younger players. The NFL has seen a growing trend of showboating and unnecessary celebrations, which it has addressed by imposing penalties and fines on players. Veterans deal with this problem in a different way: hazing. They do not let rookies get too cocky or proud. Vets bully players with the hope that they’ll understand they have a ways to go before reaching the status of a respected, proven athlete.
Hazing has been used as a solution to instill toughness and prevent cockiness, but it is not the solution. The NFL needs to open dialogue with its players and work to promote ways in which they can humble rookies and help “toughen them up” without using hazing. Maybe creating a rookie program in which they are educated on and understand their role and realistic place as a rookie is one solution? Or, maybe the owners and front offices can address the problems themselves through their own sort of tutorials that players could sit through? Whatever the solution, we know hazing is not the answer. The Dolphins are lucky Jonathan Martin merely walked out on his team. As we’ve seen from other incidents of bullying in society, the results could be fatal. We have to hope the NFL doesn’t turn a blind eye and takes action before another incident like this takes a much darker turn.