Dolphins' leadership decried by peers

Many say their locker rooms never would have allowed such a situation to smolder

Originally Published: November 11, 2013
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Tennessee Titans safety Bernard Pollard fumes every time he hears more details about the controversy inside the Miami Dolphins' locker room.

Even though he has no connections to the franchise, the bizarre twists and turns of the drama surrounding Dolphins offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin irritate him: allegations of bullying, the vile voice mail, the loyalty to Incognito displayed by his teammates and the overwhelming disdain they expressed for Martin since his departure from the team. And Incognito's reference to Martin as a "half-n-----" left Pollard so incensed that the safety said, "I get pissed off just hearing about that part."

Pollard believes the Dolphins' controversy never would have occurred on the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens team that he played on last season, one that included dominant personalities such as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Ray Rice. If there is anything that is supposed to be a given in the NFL, it's that the locker room will always police itself.

"If that had happened in Baltimore, we probably would've approached Incognito and told him to stop because we would've needed Martin to help us win," Pollard said. "If that didn't work, we would've gone to [general manager] Ozzie Newsome and [head coach] John Harbaugh and tried to get him out of there. And if it didn't stop there -- and I'm not calling Incognito a punk -- then somebody would've put hands on him."

The overriding consensus in this Miami drama -- where Incognito is currently suspended for conduct detrimental to the team and Martin has left the team after allegations of relentless harassment -- is that it defies logic on so many levels.

There are lingering questions about: (1) why the Dolphins made Incognito, a player with a checkered past, a team leader; (2) what ultimately led Martin to snap and leave the team; and (3) how much the coaches and front office knew about the situation between the two players. But it is the question of why no one in the locker room stepped in to control the situation that most baffles players around the league.


'It always gets solved out'

Players have claimed for years that the locker room polices itself. Whatever happens in games, on the practice fields or in meeting rooms is never as important as what happens inside the area every player views as a second home. The locker room is a place where young men can be crude, crass, politically incorrect and completely unabashed in their behavior. It's there where they form the bonds that will support them throughout the season and resolve the problems that could ruin their collective goals. Until now, it also was supposed to be a place where disasters like the one playing out in South Florida would never happen.

"There's always problems [in locker rooms]," Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks said. "Bunch of egos. Bunch of men. A lot of testosterone. Anything can happen. If guys get into it on the field, then some guys are like, 'OK, don't worry about it out here. We're going to wait until we get in the locker room where nobody can save you, coaches or something like that.' But it always gets solved out."

Said St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long: "If somebody sees something [within a team], you have to handle it internally. Somebody needs to step in and take care of it before it gets turned into a real problem. I guess that's what didn't happen [in Miami]."


Jonathan MartinAP Photo/Wilfredo LeeJonathan Martin, the alleged victim of harassment, has put locker room culture under the microscope.

Whatever questions people may have about Martin's supposed lack of toughness or Incognito's over-the-top behavior, one thing that every player interviewed for this story agrees on is that Miami's locker room has more issues than just those two players. The allegations so far are myriad: That the Dolphins told Incognito to "toughen up" Martin; that Martin somehow broke an unwritten code in taking his problems public; that Incognito has added "racist" to a résumé that includes his being twice suspended by his first college team (Nebraska), dismissed by his second (Oregon) and released by the NFL franchise that drafted him (St. Louis); and that Martin deserves all the resentment he has received while Incognito has earned a strange loyalty that has been offered most surprisingly by black teammates who are aware of his using racial slurs.

"It's hard to tell exactly what's happening when you're not on somebody else's team," Arizona Cardinals offensive tackle Eric Winston said. "But it doesn't seem like there's much outrage in the Dolphins' locker room. It's not like you're hearing guys say, 'We can't believe Richie did this' or 'We hope Jonathan is doing all right.' The way they're talking in the media, it's like they've lost their favorite player [with the suspension of Incognito]."

"

Eric Winston It's hard to tell exactly what's happening when you're not on somebody else's team. But it doesn't seem like there's much outrage in the Dolphins' locker room.

" -- Cardinals offensive tackle Eric Winston

Like many players, Winston had never heard of an issue like this in a locker room. If players have problems with each other, they talk. If that doesn't help, they sometimes fight. In some delicate situations, team leaders will step in and resolve the matter. And if an issue becomes too potentially divisive, then veterans will take it to the head coach or the front office, as Pollard said.

Pollard was part of a group of Ravens players who openly confronted John Harbaugh about his practice regimens during the middle of last season. Several players had been complaining about sessions that had been too exhausting, and the veterans on that team didn't hold back when Harbaugh asked for their feedback during a players meeting.

To Pollard, that's an example of how a locker room should handle things, with older veterans taking the lead on such issues. When he signed with Tennessee, he told the Titans that he planned to take a similar approach, telling coach Mike Munchak on his visit, "If you don't want my opinion, don't ask for it."

Winning teams around the league operate in much the same way. When asked how players police the locker room in Seattle, Seahawks safety Earl Thomas said: "We have so many great leaders here we don't have to worry about that. You never know the type of background guys come from. A lot of guys come from a rugged background. I know where I'm from [Orange, Texas], the weak don't survive. But I don't think it would ever get to that point here. We would nip it in the bud real quick."

Said San Francisco 49ers safety Donte Whitner, "The furthest we do here is have rookies get us some food before we go on the road. We are not trying to make these guys feel bad. We want them to help us win football games. You police it by just making sure there is a good environment and the veterans are there to lead. It's not that hard."

That doesn't mean problems in the NFL always get handled in the most diplomatic fashion. A former longtime assistant coach told a story about watching a fight explode on the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1980s, when tailback James Brooks tossed a cup of coffee onto fullback Larry Kinnebrew before the men attacked each other in a meeting room, the culmination of lingering frustration between the two.


San Francisco 49ersMichael Zagaris/Getty ImagesWorking in cramped spaces where emotions run high isn't a comfortable environment for all players.

A former New York Giants player spoke of a different scuffle, one between linebacker Jessie Armstead and offensive tackle Scott Gragg during a minicamp in the late 1990s. Armstead became so incensed that he ripped off Gragg's helmet and slugged him with it. When teammates asked Armstead why he went that far with his hostility, and he responded, "Because I could," they sat him down to discuss the importance of caring for fellow players.

More recently, players have talked about how this year's Denver Broncos diffuse potential ills before they ever start to fester. Some of that starts with a front office that is so aware of locker room chemistry that it grilled cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie during his free-agent visit, critiquing the shortcomings in his game and telling him that he shouldn't sign with Denver if he didn't plan to improve in his areas of weaknesses. But most of Denver's locker room stability can be traced to veterans such as quarterback Peyton Manning and wide receiver Wes Welker, who said his teammates needed "to grow up" after several Broncos complained about non-calls in the team's 39-33 loss to Indianapolis on Oct. 20.


Leadership evolves

"

Donte Whitner You police it by just making sure there is a good environment and the veterans are there to lead. It's not that hard.

" -- 49ers safety Donte Whitner

When it comes to policing the locker room, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Jason Babin said: "It happens naturally by what kind of characters the coaching staff and general manager put in the locker room, what kind of people they are. That kind of works itself out, but to me, the biggest thing with the whole Miami issue is [that] none of us know the whole truth. Now that players are coming to the defense of Richie publicly, you wonder what the whole story is. Obviously Richie took it too far using racial innuendos. The verbiage inside an NFL locker room is definitely not for the faint of heart, but I don't ever hear racial innuendos."

One thing many players agree on regarding the Miami controversy is that Martin didn't help himself by leaving the team. He didn't have to slug it out with Incognito, but as Marks said, "I just don't like the fact that he actually walked out instead of going to get help or going to tell the head coach. If it goes to that level, you go tell the head coach if you're a not a guy to fight back."

That same belief applies to how players deal with hazing. Most players can expect a certain level of ribbing by veterans, whether that involves carrying shoulder pads after practice, agreeing to a bad haircut or being taped to a goal post. In the case of Martin, there have been reports of constant verbal harassment by Incognito as well as an allegation that Incognito got Martin to hand over $15,000 for a Las Vegas trip that he didn't even attend. Martin seemed to become a bigger target for such behavior as long as he didn't attempt to stop it, which also is something players say shouldn't happen.

Some head coaches, such as Kansas City's Andy Reid, have outlawed hazing in order to avoid it getting out of control. Indianapolis Colts cornerback Vontae Davis said his team has a clear understanding of the boundaries for such traditions, saying, "When you can't distinguish taking advantage of somebody from just cracking jokes, then you're not being reliable as a veteran. We know how to distinguish if we're taking advantage of somebody or not."


NFL locker roomAP Photo/G. Newman LowranceMartin's actions run afoul of the unwritten code that what happens in the locker room stays in house.

When Winston was a rookie with the Houston Texans in 2006, he took matters into his own hands when it came to hazing. He twice covered dinner bills for meals held for veterans -- one for $1,700 and another for $3,500 -- but in both cases Winston laid down the ground rules. "I said they could eat and drink as much as they wanted but those meals go overboard because guys order expensive bottles of champagne to take home," Winston said. "I told them that was ridiculous. Before we ever sat down, I had talked to the restaurant and told them that wasn't happening. I had no problems walking out if that stuff became in issue."

Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez agreed that there is a fine line to walk when it comes to razzing teammates, but adds, "It's like being in a room with a bunch of comedians. It's fun in here. It makes you laugh. But just as comedians do, [players] sometimes push the line. And they go overboard a little bit and say stuff that is racially, economically … but nothing that is out of bounds in this locker room. Any type of insecurity that you have, they're going to play on it. That's just how it goes."

"

Tony Gonzalez [Players] sometimes push the line. … Any type of insecurity that you have, they're going to play on it. That's just how it goes.

" -- Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez

That is the most important takeaway in what happened in Miami and what occurs in NFL locker rooms all over the league. These are men who have reached the highest level of football largely because they are survivors, whether that means they escaped poverty, overcame injuries or refused to allow their shortcomings to keep them from realizing their dreams. Each player in the league has earned the right to be there simply by beating the odds. That accomplishment alone breeds a certain level of mental toughness that is a basic requirement of the sport.

But the problems in Miami have gone beyond questions of toughness and attitude, and veered more into conversations about basic morality and what makes a good teammate. Many veterans say the hardest thing to understand about the Dolphins' situation is why teammates would rally around Incognito while essentially ostracizing Martin. It's worth wondering why nobody on that team has expressed concern for Martin.

"For guys to go completely that far -- and make [Martin] have to take those steps where he's checking into a place where he needs help -- at that point, you're damaging him," Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said. "Things like that have to change. You can't really go out there and make a guy feel like he doesn't want to be in the locker room because besides the field, this is the safest place. It should feel that way because we look at it as a family atmosphere."

These days there are legitimate questions about what kind of family the Dolphins created. Their most prominent voice is suspended, and his career might be in jeopardy. Their second-round pick in the 2012 draft has left the team and is pondering a professional future that might be so stigmatized that Winston said, "Martin probably will never get a long-term contract in this league again." And the entire football-watching world is trying to make sense of the situation.

"When you look at it, you have 53 players in a locker room, and that means you have 53 different personalities," Pollard said. "Sooner or later, guys will clash. But for it to get to where it's gotten in Miami, that's totally unacceptable."

ESPN NFL Nation reporters Terry Blount, Michael DiRocco, Jeff Legwold, Vaughn McClure, Nick Wagoner, James Walker, Mike Wells and Bill Williamson contributed to this report.

Jeffri Chadiha, formerly of Sports Illustrated, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Chadiha first attended Wyoming on a full football scholarship before injuries led him to transfer to Michigan after two years. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication from Michigan in 1993 before pursuing a career in journalism. Chadiha is also a frequent contributor to ESPN TV.

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