Hazing in the NFL

Photo: David Madison/Getty Images

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.

Does this guy look like a bully?
Richie Incognito
Photo: Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Some in the media were quick to label Incognito a racist, but some of his black teammates defended him. Every NFL locker room is full of proud black men who have a keen eye for the intentions of their white peers. If Richie Incognito said the N-word in a malicious way, those teammates would have taken care of the problem.

Media allegations also peg Incognito as an extortion artist for allegedly forcing Martin to pay for a Vegas trip that Martin didn’t even attend. Again, some context is important here. When we hear of the totals—$15,000 per player for Vegas, rookies sacked with a $30,000 dinner bill—we are taken aback. But in the NFL, there’s no such abacking taken. My rookie-dinner bill was $26,000. Me and three other rookies were responsible for it. Two of us were on the practice squad, and two were low draft picks. We didn’t feel bullied or pressured. It was a tradition that I was in no place to challenge and felt no need to anyway. We were playing with Monopoly money. I never knew how much I had in my bank account. I didn’t balance my checkbook. I sold my number, 89, to a teammate later in my career for $15,000. I didn’t care about 89, but I tried to get as much as I could out of him. I started with $30,000; he started on $15,000. Obviously I wasn’t a very good negotiator. I routinely watched gambling debts fly well into five figures, even six, settled with a check written when we got back to work. There were plenty of guys on our team making $100,000, $200,000, $300,000 per week.

To me, this story is an instance of the curtain being pulled back on the sport and surprising those who sell it. They slam a player for being soft on the field—say he has no desire, no heart, no toughness—and then blast his poor socialization, which, in this case, amounts to a bit of mean-spirited banter. But civilized, harmonious workers and model citizens off the field will never be the savage beasts on the field. You can’t have both.

Richie Incognito lives in the world that our rabid consumption of the game has created. It’s a place for tough guys, where the mentally and physically weak are weeded out quickly. For those who show themselves to be affected by taunting and teasing, the taunting and teasing get louder, until they either break or develop a good defense. If you can’t handle a joke from your teammates, how are you going to handle the fourth quarter when we need you?—that, at least, is the conventional wisdom. Jonathan Martin’s defense was to walk out. Maybe that was a good thing. Maybe we need to get more sensitive about this stuff. But let’s also try to understand it. Richie Incognito acted like an animal because he lives in the jungle.

Jackson’s book Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile is available now.

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Hazing in the NFL