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Hazing in the NFL

Inside the locker room with a former Denver Bronco.

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A professional football player is an attack artist, trained to inflict violence on other humans. He is employed because he does this well. Most people don’t hurt each other for a living. And if they do, they aren’t praised for it. They aren’t called weaklings if they show themselves to be in pain. They aren’t chastised for not being violent enough. They aren’t paid large sums of money to commit violent acts. And they aren’t implored by the media, the fans, and their coaches to just shut up and do that violent thing that we love to watch them do.

There is nothing civilized about the existence of an NFL player. He is a culturally sanctioned savage: a trained dog. And now our faux-moralistic media is swatting the dogs on the nose because they’re playing too rough outside the ring. The latest incarnation is a story out of Miami. Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito was labeled a bully and a racist after the media reported he harassed fellow offensive lineman Jonathan Martin. The icky transcript of a threatening Incognito voice-mail was widely circulated along with claims of extortion. Incognito’s name was dragged through the courtyard of ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, drawn, and quartered.

I played six seasons in the NFL. I know what the locker room is like. The NFL is a hypermacho, all-male environment where crudeness goes unchecked. Everyone teases each other. Thick skin is a must. They are feeling you out, deciding if you can take it.

A guy on our team had a hairy backside, so they called him Carpet Butt. He laughed it off, so the nickname died. That’s your best defense. Show yourself to be affected, vulnerable, and the attention will increase exponentially. Rookies get it the worst because they must be initiated. “Shower check, Rook!” That means you have to give up your showerhead, even if you’re soaped up. “Seat check.” Stand up and give me your seat. Find another one. Rookies carry veterans’ pads and helmets into the locker room after practice. Every Thursday, the rookies in each position group were responsible for buying the veterans food. Same with travel days. “I said two double cheeseburgers, Carpet Butt!”

At night during training camp, our rookies were called to the front of the meeting room, one at a time, to entertain us: a joke, a song, whatever. If it wasn’t up to par, they were cursed off the stage. Rookies who talked back to veterans and thought a little too highly of themselves were targeted for a little extra: Tie him up, throw him in the cold tub, shave his head, move his car, hide his keys. Sounds crazy, but this was the fun part of training camp. Anything for a laugh in this hellhole, even if I’m laughing at my brother.

One year, for about a month, a popular game was to pour milk or Gatorade or water on someone over the stall door while he was going to the bathroom. The toilet should be a safe place, I thought as I walked to a different bathroom down the hall. But the thing is, none of it was malicious. I never felt threatened or taken advantage of. It was a game that I learned to play. And if you figured it out, they left you alone.

One guy took a bratwurst from the cafeteria and tied it to the outside of his underwear, wrapped a towel around his waist, and walked into the training room. He jumped up on the table and asked a trainer to come look at his groin, then pulled off the towel. Great joke, right? Depends where you work.

Through the TV screen, Richie Incognito looks like the big jerk. But we don’t understand the context, intent, or perception of the joking that goes on in that locker room, or whether it was perceived as joking in the first place. The voice-mail in question sure sounds like a joke, albeit a bad one: It allegedly involves Incognito using the N-word and offering to poop in the dude’s mouth.

Of course, no one but ESPN’s Adam Schefter takes the mouth-defecation threats seriously. I mean, imagine the logistics there. But that Incognito called Martin a half-N-word is worth discussing. Out in society, the word nigger still excites and appalls, and a white man who is unlucky enough to utter it, even in jest, is forever labeled a racist. But inside an NFL locker room, the meaning of the word has washed out. There are white men who are so close to their black brothers that their lexicon is identical, and they communicate with the same phrases, jokes, and nicknames.


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