The Miami Dolphins on Sunday suspended starting guard Richie Incognito for allegedly threatening and harassing teammate Jonathan Martin so extensively that Martin had an emotional breakdown and left the team.
Incognito allegedly left Martin a voicemail and text messages in which he called the second-year lineman, who is biracial, a "half-nigger" and said he was going to defecate in Martin's mouth. He also reportedly threatened to hunt down and harm Martin's family members, and pressured Martin to pay $15,000 toward a Las Vegas trip for fellow teammates, according to ESPN. Though Martin wasn't going on the trip, he paid up anyway because he "fear[ed] the consequences if he did not hand over the money."
The incident, though extreme, is hardly without precedent in a league where hazing is often viewed as a necessary means to build toughness and forge a battlefield-esque camaraderie. Indeed, it underscores the need for the NFL to clearly define what constitutes a harmless prank, and what crosses over into workplace harassment and outright discrimination.
The NFL isn't blind to the problem. Back in April, Commissioner Roger Goodell sent around a memo reminding teams of the league's anti-discrimination policy, an apparent response to NBA player Jason Collins coming out as gay.
The message was clear: Discrimination won't be tolerated.
But hazing — often discrimination by another name — is rampant in the NFL. Rookies are constantly belittled and forced to do stupid stunts, starting in training camp. And while some acts are harmless team-building exercises — say, making a newbie carry veterans' pads — others would be flagged immediately as flagrant abuse in any other workplace.
Take the case last year of Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who threw cornerback Prince Amukamara into an ice bath in a video that later went viral when it surfaced on the web. While many commentators recoiled at what they considered outright bullying, Amukamara dismissed the incident as a "prank," saying it was "how we show our love for each other."
In Martin's case, the harassment reportedly went on for some time, building and building until he finally snapped and stormed out of a team lunch. The Dolphins have said they were unaware of the alleged abuse before then, raising questions about whether they turned a blind eye or Martin felt pressured to stay mum.
Players often feel the need to "have skin like an armadillo" and downplay off-field abuse, former player Brendon Ayanbadejo wrote of the incident, adding that the case highlighted the fine line between being tough and being human.
"I understand you need to be tough on the football field, and you have to take coaching advice and critiques as a tool to make you a better football player and not as a personal attack," he wrote. "But there needs to be a better way to condition athletes to let them know that this mentality ends when you walk off the football field and when you leave the meeting room."
Incognito's past behavior and reputation — he was voted by his peers as the second-dirtiest player in the game — should have been a warning. Nebraska booted from from his college team for a string of off-field incidents; he got in a shouting match with former St. Louis Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo and was then dismissed from the team; and he got into a fight with a bouncer at a bar before training camp this year.
The Dolphins have now suspended Incognito for "conduct detrimental to the team" and said they would work with the NFL to probe the incident. Ultimately though, these kinds of problems will continue, unreported, unless the NFL steps in and codifies a stricter anti-hazing policy. And Martin's case, according to CBS Sports' Jason La Confora, already has the league mulling whether it should be used as a "springboard for further policies and practices at the league-wide level in regards to hazing."