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Media Bias Ignites Dolphins Firestorm

Have we learned nothing from the bogus Duke lacrosse rape case?

The very media that jumped to conclusions and rendered a verdict before any facts of the case was known is now at it again, prematurely tarring and feathering a man based more or less on the transcript of a voicemail without any context. 

Nothing else needs to be known. Richie Incognito allegedly used a racial slur, and therefore he must be the worst guy in the history of sports and be banished forever.

This is the same media that have always given Ray Lewis a pass, even though he was charged in a murder case that eventually ended in his being convicted of obstruction of justice. Granted, Lewis didn’t kill anyone and never served any prison time (and was never suspended by the NFL). But before, during and after the trial, the media never went after Lewis with the same zeal as they’re now with Incognito.

And the same could be said for NFL players who did serve prison time for manslaughter or other crimes: Lewis’ former Baltimore Ravens teammate Jamal Lewis did a four-month stint for a drug charge, both Leonard Little and Donte Stallworth were guilty of drunk driving that resulted in deaths. The only NFL player that had been as widely vilified as Incognito was Michael Vick, because he killed dogs.

A little perspective, please.

To be sure, Richie Incognito did have a checkered past. He was kicked off the team by both Nebraska and Oregon and as a pro cut by the Rams after a run-in with the head coach. He had been convicted of a misdemeanor assault charge stemming from a fight at a party in college. He’s no angel.

He’s just like many players in the brotherhood that is the NFL.

It’s extremely naïve to try to impose your own work environment sensitivities on an NFL locker room, a place I’ve spent a decade of my career in as a beat writer. It has its own culture, its own set of omerta that's similar to what exists in the military, law enforcement, or a crab fishing boat. After all, you’re not asked to go around assaulting (or be assaulted) by other cubicle workers every Sunday, but that’s exactly what they do.

Players get into fights. They pull practical jokes on one another. They shred rookies’ suits or pants and leave them in a thousand pieces or give them unsightly haircuts. And sometimes they throw around racial slurs (by both black and white players) as both an insult and a term of endearment. 

The locker room is filled with all kinds of different personalities that have to strive for a common goal. There could be a Lincoln Kennedy, as gentle a soul as you’d find in any locker room but a mean SOB once he stepped between the lines. There could be a Bill Romanowski, always carrying around his suitcase of pharmaceuticals and be at any given time borderline deranged. And there could be players as dumb as a box of rocks, but useful because they have no second thoughts about using their body parts as a battering ram.

If you don’t like the sausage-making, then it’s best to stick to enjoying the sausage on Sundays.

Now, I’m sure I’ll be accused by many of condoning Incognito’s behavior. They’ll tell me that bullying in the workplace is not OK under any circumstances.

But calling what took place in the Dolphins locker room based on just the information we have is doing a disservice to helpless kids who are truly being bullied. Bullying is a serious problem in schools and among children and teenagers, but what happens in an NFL locker room is not nearly the same, because every man is capable of standing up for himself.

Former NFL player Keyshawn Johnson tells of his time when he was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where future Hall of Famer Warren Sapp relentlessly pushed around other players, particularly a young Chidi Ahanotu. 

Now, Ahanotu is in many ways like Martin – bright, talented and coming from a good home, not exactly a typical NFL player’s profile. He could’ve gone to Columbia but chose to accept a scholarship from Cal-Berkeley. He contemplated going to med school after college but decided to give the NFL a try.

It’s almost certain that Ahanotu got picked on by Sapp because of his “otherness.” But Ahanotu put an end to that by confronting Sapp in front of the whole locker room. Sapp backed down and Ahanotu went on to have a long and distinguished NFL career that lasted 12 seasons. He founded a talent management firm after his retirement and has continued to thrive after his playing days were over.

Jonathan Martin came from similar, if not more privileged background. His parents both went to Harvard, as did his grandfather and great grandfather. He prepped at Harvard-Westlake, a school as prestigious and exclusive as there is (I know this as I've spent many days there while covering high school sports). He went to Stanford after turning down Harvard and spent his time on the Farm studying the Classics and protecting Andrew Luck’s blindside.

Martin probably would’ve been a high achiever in pretty much any field he chooses to enter. A two-time All-America selection, he nevertheless decided to give the NFL a shot after being drafted by the Dolphins in the second round. The ensuing culture shock probably made things tough for Martin.

The often profane and vulgar NFL locker room bears little resemblance to what Martin had experienced in his upbringing, surrounded by smart, articulate, polite and mostly affluent people. The NFL locker room is much more street than seminary, filled with competitive alpha dogs who can be, well, mean. And it’s that way because pro football is legalized mayhem, and only those who are willing to inflict and absorb bodily harm can survive and thrive. The NFL is not for everybody.

This foreign environment, compounded by his poor performance as a rookie, likely helped to create massive mental anguish for Martin, who finally snapped after a fairly pedestrian locker room prank and left the team. The situation immediately escalated after someone leaked the transcript of the voicemail and the media pounced on it.

It’s not surprising that the Dolphins locker room universally sided with Incognito over Martin. They have a better idea about what transpired behind closed doors and they don’t like someone who threw a teammate, and by extension, the entire team, under the bus. Whereas the media were quick to seize on the racial angle, this was way more about class and culture than about race. 

Incognito is a middling talent who worked hard to become a Pro Bowler and emerged as the leader of a rebuilt offensive line that has its team in the playoff hunt. Martin is a bright young kid with options, who doesn’t necessarily need football in his life and has contemplated so. Society might not have more admiration for the former over the latter, but football players do.

We don’t have all the facts yet, and there’s a possibility that this episode may be an internal friction that happens on sports teams a thousand times over. Or more likely, the stresses - on and off the field - of being a pro football player pushed Martin to a breaking point. It might end amicably with a bro-hug between Incognito and Martin, who many insist were good friends. It might end with neither playing another down in the NFL because they’re now both toxic, damaged goods. 

Chances are, it won’t end well, because there is already sufficient acrimony and distrust for all parties involved, and that Martin has hired a prominent lawyer. The atmosphere is poisoned by a national media that, as usual, jumped to conclusions without either context or facts.

It’s the same media that at least wanted to hear from murderous thugs like Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad. But Richie Incognito? He’s apparently an even lower life form who does not deserve to have his side of the story heard.

Samuel Chi is Editor of RealClearSports. He may be reached at sam@realclearsports.com. Follow him on Twitter @BCSGuru.

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