NFL must not tolerate degrading behavior

If basic human decency matters, Richie Incognito and his loathsome ilk should have no place in any sport

Cleveland Browns v Miami Dolphins 9-7-2013

Offensive linemen Richie Incognito (68) of the Miami Dolphins waits for the snap of the football during a game against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. The Dolphins won 23-10. (Diamond Images / Diamond Images/Getty Images / September 8, 2013)

If the NFL really wants to revolutionize its culture, free-agent guard Richie Incognito will stay unemployed for good.

If football justice is served, Incognito's fellow instigators, Dolphins center Mike Pouncey and guard John Jerry, will face suspensions in light of NFL investigator Ted Wells' disturbing 144-page report released Friday.

Hopefully, Dolphins offensive line coach Jim Turner will be fired for participating in the orchestrated degradation of Jonathan Martin and others. Ideally, Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin will be called to Commissioner Roger Goodell's office to explain how he possibly could not have known all that was happening — and then suspended two to four games for letting it happen on his watch.

How could Philbin not know about the "fine book" Incognito issued to offensive linemen that, Wells alleged, recorded Martin's $10,000 check for failing to attend a Las Vegas trip with teammates? Where was Philbin when misogynists Incognito and Pouncey simulated having sex with Martin's sister on the practice field? How could any head coach be oblivious to Incognito's racist treatment of his team's Japanese assistant trainer?

Is any player in the NFL good enough to justify such despicable behavior, let alone an offensive guard?

No.

Exactly one week after Super Bowl Sunday, the NFL's biggest week of 2014 began.

In a six-day span, the league addressed the announcements of Incognito's harassment and Michael Sam's homosexuality. For Incognito, the public documentation of a troubling pattern perhaps marked the beginning of the end of an NFL career defined by immaturity. For Sam, poised to become the NFL's first openly gay player, the timing could not have been better as attention now shifts to focus on how players treat each other.

In starkly different manners, Sam and Incognito potentially left marks that will last longer than anything they accomplish in football. Thanks to both their actions combined, intended or not, character now threatens to make a comeback in the NFL.

One can hope. A violent game on Sundays need not be vile the rest of the week. Too much of America's watching. Football differs from almost every other profession in terms of employee expectations but what Incognito repeatedly did to Martin went beyond the loosest definition of decency.

Interest in Incognito will reveal whether the league agrees.

A team desperate for offensive line help might justify signing the 10-year veteran guard by saying NFL rosters are full of guys with police records who did worse. Any team whose general manager wants to maintain harmony and look himself in the mirror without cringing will lose the number of Incognito's agent.

If you were a head coach, who would you rather have in the huddle: Martin or Incognito? The guy who walked away from his team or the one who pushed him mercilessly? What carries the bigger NFL stigma, being labeled a bully or patsy? It will be fascinating to find out, but expect Martin to reinvent himself before Incognito.

Starting Martin would give a team a young, promising offensive tackle with something to prove. Signing Incognito could stabilize one position but alienate players at many others given how heinous his acts were, according to the report.

Incognito and a teammate joked about buying a rifle that, according to Incognito's text, "was perfect for shooting black people.'' He threatened retaliation against Martin by texting Pouncey: "Snitches get stitches … Blood in, blood out.'' He savaged Martin's psyche so much Martin contemplated suicide.

If not for Martin's parents, whose eloquence echoes in the Wells report, his future might look less bright. Sam should be so lucky to have a similarly strong support system as he navigates his own uncharted NFL course.

Last week's developments fundamentally could alter the pro football workplace known as the locker room where homophobia and bullying too often go unchecked under the guise of tomfoolery. Both revelations should force the league to redefine and formalize for its 32 teams what passes for acceptable language and decorum in a sport evolving off the field as much as on it. Talk about rules changes.

What once passed as harmless teasing among teammates eventually will have to fit within the boundaries of tolerance. What some old-school proponents used to consider toughening up a player mentally now qualifies as abuse in some cases. You don't have to be rooting for Jonathan Martin or Michael Sam to call this progress. The type of vulgar taunting and ridicule in which Incognito and others routinely engaged has no place in any sport, not even one fueled by machismo. In 2014, real men consider other people's feelings.

When it comes to combating bullying and homophobia, the sports world is waiting for a cue, NFL. That includes impressionable college, high school and Pop Warner players and coaches.

There is never a wrong time to do the right thing.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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