Terra Incognito
The Miami Dolphins’ bullying scandal is a stew of our cultural preoccupations.

Miami Dolphins player Richie Incognito


Daniel Foster

The National Football League has a self-explanatory designation for injured players: “physically unable to perform.” The PUP list lets the players who are on it stay under contract, attend meetings, and use team training facilities while not counting toward the 53-man active roster. But last week, second-year offensive tackle Jonathan Martin left the Miami Dolphins’ active squad under the same terms, for what is officially designated a “non-football injury” but would more sensibly be described as his entry into the “emotionally unable to perform” list.

At issue is what Martin’s recently hired lawyer — David Cornwell, who notoriously sprung Brewers slugger Ryan Braun (temporarily, it turns out) from a 50-game suspension by arguing that a positive PED test was tainted — called a season and a half of “harassment that went far beyond the traditional locker room hazing,” including “daily vulgar comments” about, among other topics, his race and his sister’s genitals, as well as a “malicious physical attack” by an unnamed teammate.

The ringleader of this organized bullying (if that’s an apt phrase, which I think it is not, but more on that presently) is supposed to be one Richie Incognito, a Volkswagen of a man and the unofficial leader of the Dolphins’ O-line before he was suspended indefinitely in the wake of Martin’s departure.

First, a word about the belligerents. Incognito is a Jersey-born mauler chosen in the third round of the 2005 NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams. In the pros, he has routinely demonstrated above-average talent at a position — interior offensive line — where keeping talent is relatively cheap for franchises. Despite this, the Rams waived him in the middle of 2009, after the second game that season in which he was pulled for multiple personal fouls (this time, head-butting opponents) and an on-field shouting match with head coach Steve Spagnuolo.

It was part of a pattern for Incognito, who had started his college career as a Nebraska Cornhusker but withdrew from that school after three seasons that saw game ejections, multiple team suspensions, and a misdemeanor assault conviction. His transfer to the University of Oregon lasted all of a week, ending after he violated the terms of conduct he’d established with coaches there. The rap sheet sent Incognito, who possessed first-round talent and explosiveness, sinking down teams’ draft boards.

In the NFL, where talent too often trumps trouble, Incognito got a job quickly after his dismissal from St. Louis, as a mercenary rental for the Bills down the stretch. And when Buffalo, which had what amounted to a right of first refusal, failed to re-sign him during the offseason, he found what looked like a long-term home with the Dolphins, where he was apparently well liked by teammates despite cementing his reputation as the dirtiest player in the league.

Then there is Jonathan Martin. In contrast to the tattooed Incognito — who can be seen in a video raging, drunk and shirtless, through a bar in broad daylight — Martin came from three generations of Harvardians. These included his great-grandfather, one of twelve African Americans in the class of ’24; his grandfather and father, who went on to be respected academics; and his mother, a successful corporate lawyer. Martin’s idea of youthful rebellion was to break the Cambridge legacy and study classics at lowly Stanford. There he shined as a smart, athletic defender of Andrew Luck’s blindside. The sole knock on Martin coming out of college was that he was a finesse player, lacking elite size and toughness for the tackle position. But the Dolphins, who use a zone-blocking scheme that favors the nimble over the brute, liked what they saw and took him in the second round last year.

The troubles apparently started almost immediately, with Incognito, according to some reports, being told by coaches to “toughen up” Martin, and in any event recognizing him as a soft target. Incognito enlisted his fellow linemen to give Martin a rough go of it, joining in on the racially charged name-calling (Incognito calls Martin a “half-n*****” on a voicemail), the intimidation (hitting Martin up for 15 grand to fund a Vegas trip he didn’t attend), and the ostracizing (by some accounts, a stunt in which the line left a dining table as Martin sat down was the last straw).

Both Martin and Incognito remain Dolphins in name, but the smart money is that neither will ever play another snap for Miami. Their twisted relationship — Cornwell said Martin tried to befriend Incognito in an effort to get him to back off — and the subsequent revelations and recriminations have proven to be of more than passing interest to fans and non-fans alike. Perhaps that’s because the saga is a veritable stew of America’s current sociocultural preoccupations: namely, the crisis of masculinity, the menace of “bullying,” and the paradoxes of race.