NFL case casts light on adult bullying

Locker room culture defense

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  • Incognito

    PITTSBURGH — That adage about a tree falling in the forest and not making a sound? This problem doesn’t exist in cyberspace, where someone is always listening.


    By this measure, Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito has been generating an awful lot of noise.

    “It’s beautifully ironic … his name is ‘Incognito’ and he’s completely not anonymous,” said Montana Miller, social media expert and an associate professor in the Bowling Green State University department of popular culture.

    In the last few days of October — coincidentally, Nationally Bullying Prevention Month — Mr. Incognito is accused of harassing teammate Jonathan Martin, in the name of “toughening up” the second-year player.

    Citing emotional distress over this and possibly a lunchroom prank, Mr. Martin left the team on Oct. 28. Mr. Incognito was suspended for “conduct detrimental to the team,” and an NFL investigation was launched to include the possibility he was executing orders from Miami head coach Joe Philbin.

    Professional athletes are accustomed to playing out their careers, and to some degree, their lives, in public. Mr. Incognito is accused of threatening Mr. Martin and his family, through voice mail and texts that included one filled with racist epithets. He later took to social media to defend himself on Twitter, where Mr. Incognito has more than 58,000 followers.

    “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth — Buddha,” he tweeted on Nov. 3 from his account, @68INCOGNITO.

    The online response was swift. Paul F. Parmley (@Paul Parmley) retweeted his post, commenting “Add ‘voicemails’ and ‘racism.’”

    Another, Mark Waters (@skatepunk22) noted: “The truth? That you guys are bigots and bullies and homophobes? Let’s hope it does come out.”

    “It’s very live-by-the-tweet, die-by-the-tweet, isn’t it?” Ms. Miller said.

    By the end of the week, the story had taken on a fractured life of its own.

    Former Dolphins offensive tackle Lyndon Murtha wrote a piece for defending Mr. Incognito: “Personally, I know when a guy can’t handle razzing. You can tell that some guys just aren’t built for it. Incognito doesn’t have that filter.”

    Mr. Incognito has said he used the racial slurs in jest. That doesn’t wash, said Robin Kowalski, a psychology professor at Clemson University.

    “The traditional response of the perpetrator is, of course, ‘Oh? I was just kidding.’ Even if they weren’t,” she said.

    There are many around the sports world who insist the Dolphins’ locker room acceptance of treating younger players as subservient — including having them pick up large restaurant tabs — is merely part of the NFL’s culture.

    Ms. Kowalski said that any situation that allows bullying is unacceptable, be it on pro sports teams, in college fraternities or in corporate board rooms. Typically, she said, bullying is defined by repeated events over time in a situation where a power imbalance exists.

    It doesn’t matter if Mr. Incognito was merely emulating a longtime tradition among NFL teams, she said. What matters is that Mr. Martin felt threatened. This, of course, has led to vehement online criticism, where he has been urged to “man up.”

    “The most common definition of bullying is that it’s an aggressive act intended to cause harm or distress,” Ms. Kowalski said. “If nothing else, this [current event] is raising awareness. There has got to be something good coming out of it.”

    When adults such as Mr. Incognito engage in such behaviors, it’s called “online incivility.” She added, “ ‘Cyberbullying’ has such a middle-school connotation.”

    Ms. Miller said that in this case involving two well-paid professional football players, it’s hard for the public to generate much sympathy for either side. Mr. Incognito in particular, she said, “will now be known for being obnoxious, and that’s what he deserves.

    Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Maria Sciullo is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette.

    Contact her at:, 412-263-1478, or on Twitter @MariaSciulloPG.