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Best Focus for NFL’s Richie Incognito Investigation

The National Football League is at the outset of an investigation into bullying in the Miami Dolphins’ locker room. To the fans and media members lusting for more ugliness from a sport already overpopulated by criminals and social miscreants, the focus of their attention will be the salacious details of one offensive lineman’s alleged harassment of another. Surely the team has a code of conduct for its employees. The inquiry now under way ought to determine if those rules apply equally to on-field talent and – if so – whether the Dolphins have dropped the ball in this instance.

It is firsthand knowledge in this corner that football at the highest levels has always been a brutal sport populated by hard men. Frailty of health and spirit have never been rewarded. Meanness – although not criminality – always has.

Once upon a time that translated into playing with injuries salved by unwise and dangerous halftime injections or ignored altogether. Salaries being what they are – that is, very high – there are very few players risking their free agent paydays by emulating Jack Youngblood’s Super Bowl XIV heroics on a broken leg. Not that they should, anyway. But the league that once garnered perhaps the most respect for the quality of its people – think Roger Staubach or Barry Sanders – can’t crow about them so loudly anymore. Ownership of an NFL franchise has been considered a “license to print money” for at least a decade, but at what cost?

Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post wrote that the NFL has an image problem with “players as conscienceless gangsters [in] a game of uncontrolled violence, with sadism and excess as byproducts[.] . . . a lingering subterranean culture in which thuggery is not just tolerated but rewarded[.]

Jim Trotter of Sports Illustrated aptly noted that “NFL teams will put up with drug dealers, dog fighters, drunk drivers who kill someone and racists if they can help them win games (sic).”

And that brings us to Dolphins left guard Richie Incognito – who will remain anything but – and right tackle Jonathan Martin. According to multiple sources, Incognito is alleged to have sent racial slurs by text to Martin and left similar voicemail messages. He has supposedly gone so far as to threaten to kill his teammate, for as-yet undisclosed reasons. Martin – a second year player from Stanford and a starter – voluntarily left the Dolphins because of this mistreatment and once the cause of his departure became known, the team suspended Incognito pending the outcome of an investigation into the matter.

According to multiple sources, other players on the Dolphins and around the league have chosen up sides. Some back Martin for standing up to a bully by being the bigger man and walking away, while others don’t, perceiving his response as weak. The latter camp pretty much wishes Martin would have engaged Incognito on the practice field, in the shower room, or down an alley, in order to draw blood and protect his honor. A subset of that group also feels that this is a “boys-will-be-boys” instance and – presumably – much ado about nothing. That may even be true.

Nevertheless, the investigation report will likely be heavy on what Incognito did – assuming he did some or all of what was alleged – and may contain little about the Dolphins organization and its response to all of this. Like an accident on the freeway, the rubberneckers will want to hear the N-word and the death threats repeated ad nauseum and all the better if some of it is on tape so that it can be played on all of the six hundred SportsCenters that are broadcast each day.

And then self-righteous sports commentators will cluck their highly-trained tongues; Incognito will be branded a “rogue employee” like so many Glaxo Smith Kline salesmen in China and likely get suspended for some period of time; and then become a pariah only until an injury-plagued NFL team scoops him up and delivers him back into a three-point stance.

According to Yahoo! Sports, the NFLPA is anticipating answers to a different inquiry:

“As the representative organization of all players, the NFLPA will insist on a fair investigation for all involved,” the union said in a statement Tuesday that included no condemnation of Incognito’s conduct.

Instead, the union said accountability rested with the Dolphins.

”We expect that the NFL and its clubs create a safe and professional workplace for all players, and that owners, executives, coaches and players should set the best standards and examples,” the union said. ”It is the duty of this union to hold the clubs … accountable for safety and professionalism in the workplace. … We will continue to remain in contact with the impacted players, their representatives and player leadership.”

What Incognito might have done to a teammate is rotten, seemingly antithetical to team cohesiveness, and injurious to the club’s success this season and maybe beyond. And, sadly, it is not out of character for too large a chunk of today’s NFL talent pool. But it may violate organization-wide rules and – if so – whether the Dolphins did or didn’t enforce those rules is a good focus for this inquiry.

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