At a time when we've lost much of our capacity to be stunned, the level of systemic abuse detailed in Ted Wells' report on life inside the Dolphins' locker room is truly stunning. Richie Incognito was a virus running unchecked, several other Dolphins were carriers, and Jonathan Martin contracted the most severe -- but by no means only -- case.
It's tempting to say something far-reaching and wide-ranging about The Game and how its structure and mores retard human development. It's tempting to indict the league and the Dolphins for continuing a tradition of slipshod treatment of mental-health issues through their lack of follow-up after Martin was treated for depression last spring. It's more than tempting to take one last run at excoriating Incognito for his seemingly sociopathic behavior and its ability to flow seamlessly through the daily routines of NFL life.
The Wells report highlights the disconnect between NFL culture and the world at large. Some of this disconnect is understandable, even necessary. It's not a "normal" workplace, and some leeway can be given for the nature of the profession. The Wells report is clear-eyed in its understanding of this world -- its vulgarity and insults -- and yet still comes across as stunned as lawyer-ese will allow. This was a toxic place among toxic places, and Martin -- a man uniquely unsuited to deal with the savagery -- wasn't the only one who was poisoned.
The scene inside the Dolphins' locker room is condensed to this: weakness masked as strength, strength as weakness. Incognito, Mike Pouncey and John Jerry were perceived as the strong ones, uniting to torment Martin and others under the guise of toughening them up. Martin was the weak one, walking away from a physical confrontation after determining that it would be detrimental to himself and the team.
Incognito was the "team" guy, right? Member of the Leadership Council, bell cow for the offensive line, self-appointed hardener of the soft, he comes across in the report as a terribly divisive man whose bizarre and disgusting behavior cost the team a starting offensive lineman and subjected it to a phenomenal amount of unwanted scrutiny.
However you want to describe Martin's response to the constant badgering -- abashed complicity, courage, fear -- it's obvious he was a far better example of maturity than the bullying band of brothers that assembled to taunt him.
It's fascinating to learn, through Martin's messages to his mother, that Martin's feelings of inadequacy seemed to stem in large part from his academic success. An upper-middle-class black man with a run of good schools in his background, he was looked upon skeptically, as someone who might commit the unforgivable offense (in Incognito's world) of having more than one thought running through his head at any given time. Martin wrote, "I mostly blame the soft schools I went to, which fostered within me a feeling that I'm a huge p---y, as I never got into fights."
Martin's upbringing stifled him, rendered him speechless amid the hypersexual, hypervulgar, hyperracial world of the Dolphins' locker room, and it underscored a point worth considering: Education is not always a valued commodity in the NFL. It can be looked upon with derision, as a sign that its owner lacks a certain desperation needed to succeed. Martin might be the first person to express shame at having a Stanford education.
At this point, defending Incognito is nearly impossible unless it's part of a purely academic exercise. The idea that this is boys being boys, that every 20-something would be in trouble if his text messages to his friends were examined without context, is a classic straw man. If your boys-will-be-boys messages lead another human being to quit a job and seek psychiatric help, then by all means feel free to share your "wisdom." Otherwise, spare us.
Incognito's Twitter rampage against Martin the other day, which allowed him to add cyberbullying to his already-impressive résumé, was indicative of a desperate and ignorant man. He decided to reveal suicidal thoughts Martin allegedly confided in him, without the self-awareness to understand that he might have been the source of them. He suggested the truth would set him free, perhaps aware that the truth -- at least Ted Wells' truth -- was about to render him unemployable.
The vileness he directed at Martin's sister is almost embarrassing to read. The idea of someone not only thinking those things but also relaying them to Martin is unthinkable. It's safe to say they paint a somewhat different portrait than the one on public view when Incognito put on his big puppy dog act for Jay Glazer.
Incognito reveled in his bullying. He cherished it. It was either ignored or tacitly encouraged by his employer, and it became a big part of his identity. In the Dolphins' "fine book," Incognito noted that he fined himself for "breaking JMart." After Martin left the team and the investigation was launched, Incognito told Pouncey to destroy the book.
Wells writes: "We view Incognito's entries in the fine book about 'breaking Jmart' and his attempt to destroy the fine book -- which was unsuccessful -- as evidence demonstrating his awareness that he had engaged in improper conduct toward Martin." This gives Incognito too much credit. He wasn't aware that it was wrong; he was aware that it would be perceived as being wrong. He knew it looked bad, and he knew people wouldn't understand. How else can you explain his defiance when challenged by head coach Joe Philbin on his behavior? He allegedly told Philbin he would keep talking the way he wanted to talk, and Philbin seemed powerless to stop it.
Philbin comes across as well-meaning and ineffective in Wells' report, and that's an improvement over most preconceptions. In essence, the head coach is praised for displaying -- in the most flattering interpretation -- benign incompetence. Allegedly a strong proponent of workplace respect, Philbin didn't know he was presiding over the most disrespectful and counterproductive workplace in American sports.
And maybe that's the perfect conclusion to the entire sordid episode. Irony stacked upon irony, ignorance upon ignorance, and maybe -- in a world that is far more civilized than the one Martin left behind -- the revelations will serve as a disinfectant.