Richie Incognito, an NFL Miami Dolphin, is a clubhouse bully who was suspended for traumatizing teammate Jonathan Martin. A new NFL investigative report found that Richie, a white, soon-to-be free agent veteran, abused Martin, a black player then in his rookie season.
The report accuses Incognito and two other players of using racially charged abusive language and engaging in abusive conduct directed toward the black rookie. Incognito, according the to investigation, was the ringleader.
Richie Incognito, meet former Los Angeles City firefighter Tennie Pierce. Or more precisely, meet Pierce’s firefighter “friends” — who stand accused of bullying the black LAFD veteran. Incognito can relate to this story of what happened to Pierce’s friends and co-workers.
During a firehouse volleyball game, Pierce, a then 19-year veteran firefighter who called himself “the Big Dog,” repeatedly urged his teammates to “feed the Big Dog” — meaning throw the ball to him. After the game, Pierce — a known prankster — ate a few bites of spaghetti. Then he noticed his buddies laughing. Turns out his co-workers laced the spaghetti with dog food. Funny. Right? After all, didn’t Pierce once give a shave in a sensitive area to a fellow firefighter as the hapless guy sat tied up in a chair? Isn’t that sort of how they roll in the ol’ firehouse?
You know, frat-house environment, kind of like the NFL.
But the suddenly offended Pierce sued for racial discrimination! He alleged three firefighters — two whites, one Hispanic — subjected him to racial discrimination and abuse by serving up the dog food. A black man unknowingly eating dog food, said an “expert” witness, harkens back to “300 years” of discrimination against blacks. The Los Angeles City Council settled with him for him $2.7 million, later reduced to $1.5 mil.
It gets worse.
The two whites — both fire captains — received one-month suspensions, fines, and were prohibited from future promotions. So the captains also sued, calling their punishment racially biased. They won. The Los Angeles City Council agreed to pay $2.5 million to the captains — $900,000 more than their jury award and $1 million more than Tennie Pierce was paid.
What does this have to do with Incognito? As with Pierce’s non-black co-workers, Incognito, in a league that is 66 percent black, thought he had been given a “license” to cut loose with his mostly black teammates.
Days after Incognito’s suspension, the Miami Herald reported that Incognito was considered “an honorary black man” by his black teammates. “I don’t have a problem with Richie,” said Mike Wallace, a black player, “I love Richie.” Another black player, tight end Michael Egnew, said, “Richie Incognito isn’t a racist.” A former teammate said: “Richie is honorary. I don’t expect you to understand because you’re not black. But being a black guy, being a brother is more than just about skin color. It’s about how you carry yourself. How you play. Where you come from. What you’ve experienced. A lot of things.”
But now “the honorary black man” stands accused of bullying the black then rookie player — even as the NFL-commissioned independent report admits it’s an inherent part of the culture.
The NFL report said: “We find that (offensive line) Coaches (Jim) Turner and (Chris) Mosley were certainly aware of some of the insulting comments directed to Martin by Incognito (and others), although we cannot determine the full extent of that awareness and whether they had any appreciation of how hurtful this language was to Martin. It is undisputed that these coaches never sought to stop the behavior.” Indeed, the report found these two coaches may have laughed along while some of the derogatory abuse was hurled at Martin and others.
NFL report concedes: “For better or worse, profanity is an accepted fact of life in competitive sports, and professional athletes commonly indulge in conduct inappropriate in other social settings. We also recognize that good-spirited goading often contributes to team bonding.” But, said the report, “Martin was taunted on a persistent basis with sexually explicit remarks about his sister and his mother and at times ridiculed with racial insults and other offensive comments.”
Vulgar, yes. But Incognito, said the report, was an “equal opportunity harasser.” One white player arguably received more abuse than did Martin. “The issue of whether Incognito’s ultimate motivation for his persistent harassment of Martin,” said the report, “was in part racial animus is complicated by the fact that John Jerry (who is black) and Mike Pouncey (who is bi-racial) often joined Incognito in the abusive behavior. Presumably, they would not have followed Incognito’s lead if they thought he had selected Martin for abuse out of racial animus.”
So … it’s … complicated …
Incognito denies nothing. His team, the league, fellow black players seemed OK with or were conveniently oblivious to the vicious bullying — until they weren’t. This type of abusive behavior, former players say, has long been tolerated/encouraged/ignored by the league. But the winds changed.
Incognito has apologized to Martin, but insists he thought they were close friends. Maybe it ends there. But the NFL ought not be surprised if Incognito, and his lawyers, decide it doesn’t.
Larry Elder is a best-selling author and radio talk-show host.