Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Dolphins' Debacle

Unfortunately, it looks like absolutely no one is going to come out of this Miami Dolphins fiasco looking good at all. Not Richie Incognito, who quite clearly crossed a line from razzing to harassment. Not Jonathan Martin, who took his issues to the public rather than seek out in-house options. Not Dolphins coaches and management, who somehow let a loose cannon like Incognito assume an important leadership role. And not the rest of the Dolphins themselves, who now must play out the remaining half of the season without the starting left side of their offensive line, something that should lower their playoff odds from "marginal" to "almost zero" (especially if they're going to get beaten by previously winless Tampa Bay, a team that's no stranger to internal drama, and tally exactly two rushing yards while they're at it).

I cannot claim to have any more knowledge than that which has been published already by reputable news sources. From what I have read and what I can guess at after over a decade in coaching, it is really hard to understand the poor decision-making at every level in Miami. My first question is what on earth were the Miami coaches and front office types thinking when they allowed Incognito to have a place on the six-person "leadership council"?* You're probably familiar with his history by now, but let's review. Over the past ten years, Incognito has: been kicked off the Nebraska football team despite multiple accolades due to his play (September 2004), been kicked off of Oregon's team after a mere week (September 2004), been dumped by the Rams because of his dirty play** (2009), been let go by the Bills (2010), sexually assaulted a volunteer at the Dolphins' annual celebrity golf tournament (2012), and now this business with Martin. Would any coach or general manager, in their right mind, sign off on Metta World Peace or Lawrence Phillips or Dez Bryant or Ruben Patterson being a team captain or official team leader? Of course not! With guys like that, you live with them as long as they're productive players, but you under no circumstances give them important responsibilities. Hell, the Cowboys have a team of handlers for Bryant just to make sure that he can function as a normal adult off of the football field. That sounds more like what Incognito needed.

*Whatever that means - don't teams already have four official captains?
**While with the Rams Incognito drew SEVEN unnecessary roughness penalties. That's a lot for anyone, let alone an offensive lineman. It earned him recognition from his peers as the league's dirtiest player in a Sports Illustrated poll that season.

Apparently not content with merely granting Incognito a spot on the team's leadership council, the Dolphins coaches then doubled down on their mistake by expressly granting him carte blanche to "toughen up" Martin. As Andrew Sharp pointed out on Grantland last week via an interview with Martin's high school coach, Martin managed to get to this level without ever really experiencing a super-macho locker room atmosphere at home or in school. It sounds like he wound up playing football because he turned out to be huge and athletic and pretty good at it, but it also sounds like football was not an all-consuming aspect of his life.*** It's quite probable that the Dolphins' coaches saw something on film or in practices that led them to believe that Martin, for whatever reason, needed to play tougher to fully tap into his very impressive physical gifts. That's fine. That's what coaches are supposed to pick up on; their job is to utilize every advantage at their disposal, and a 6'5", 312-pound offensive tackle with good agility and strength is an awesome weapon if you can get him to play at his highest level.

***Total speculation on my part, but bear with me.

But it's also a coach's job to know the psychological makeup of your players, and to motivate them accordingly. Yes, there are a lot of guys on a football team. Yes, you have to be at least "a little fucked in the head" to play football, as per my friend Clay. Yes, you can't "treat players differently" or "show favoritism" to certain guys if you want to maintain respect among your players. You do need to be fair as a coach, but you also need to recognize what kind of approach works best for each individual and work with that. And the coaches did single Martin out as an individual. But it appears that they gave Incognito the task of "toughening him up" without either a) giving any direct indication of this maneuver to Martin himself or b) working out whether or not that was really the best way to get Martin to play better. It seems more like they sat around a table and figured that Incognito should mentor Martin simply because he was the meanest guy on the team, and they obviously think highly of guys who have a serious asshole streak in them. I'm pretty sure that they could have discovered a better solution.

It's perfectly fair to call what Martin went through "bullying." I'm going to discount the everybody-gets-up-from-the-table-when-someone-sits-down move as a pretty harmless prank, but it apparently was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back in Martin's case. And there's the rub. Team captains, or "leadership council" members, or whatever, are supposed to make sure that none of the locker room drama or hazing or initiation becomes detrimental to the team. That's where Miami's "leadership" failed. Would this situation have reached a breaking point in a locker room with Ray Rice or Peyton Manning or DeMarcus Ware or (insert respected veteran leader here)? OF COURSE NOT. They would have taken the offender(s) aside and said, "Look, I know what you're trying to do here, and I appreciate the effort, but you have to dial it down before it blows up and hurts the rest of us." After all, Martin was the starting left tackle, a fairly important position in the grand scheme of things. It's not like he was relegated to playing special teams or anything like that. You generally need a good left tackle to perform well in both the running and (definitely) the passing games. Despite whatever "toughness" issues Martin may have had, he was still the starter, and unlikely to be replaced any time soon. I'd say that qualifies as important. And the team handled the situation poorly as it was unfolding, worse in fact than some high school teams I have coached.

I will share a brief story here with identities redacted. Prior to the season, the leaders of a team I coached approached me with their concerns about a couple of other players making the varsity team (I was always the "approachable" coach). In one instance it was merely the fact that they didn't like one particular new player, although they had not really bothered to get to know this person at all (they were just being typical teenagers, which to a degree is unavoidable). That one was dealt with by telling them that it was very likely that person would make the team, and they needed to deal with it and be inviting and accepting, because that's the way the team should function. I essentially told them that they, as team leaders, were not to play favorites or hold people to different standards of acceptance. With the other player, however, there was a back story from a year or so earlier, involving that person not really having a clear grasp of personal boundaries with two of the older members of the team, and those individuals feeling very uncomfortable about it at the time (and later, in one instance). In that case, I spoke to all parties separately (and the whole team together), got an understanding that boundaries would be respected and that individuals would not be excluded from aspects of being members of the team, and made sure that everyone knew that the coaches expected them to handle the situation in a mature manner. I can't say that I handled it perfectly (never having dealt with such a scenario before), but I can say that both "questioned" players did in fact make the team (and both clearly deserved to), were treated fairly, and were both very solid contributors. I think everybody won. I will now stop patting myself on the back and return my shoulder to its socket.

The lesson here is not that I am an all-powerful savant when it comes to putting together high school athletic teams. Far from it. I have made plenty of mistakes in my time, and mistakes with every team I have ever coached. Hell, I've lost an entire team before. But the people in key leadership positions (front office, coaches, captains) have to set a tone that is both aware and responsive. I was able, with the team leaders' help, to defuse a potential (if pointless) headache in large part because we were able to talk about it and hash it out with mutual understanding from all parties, something that was clearly missing in Miami.

Football still has (and will have) a "warrior mentality" because it is different from other professions. Clay put it best: "The rest of society does not accept payment for the service of ramming your head into another man's head in hopes of knocking him backwards sixty-plus times once a week for four months!" But that doesn't mean that you can't or shouldn't treat your employees like real people with very real concern for their well-being. The era of inflexible, "my way or the highway" coaches who can get away with damn near any kind of behavior is over. There's a reason Bobby Knight wears a microphone these days, or why Mike Rice (whom I wrote about several months ago) is going to face pretty intense scrutiny from his superiors for the rest of his career. That shit doesn't fly anymore. Mike Krzyzewski frequently peels paint with the language that he uses in front of his players (especially at halftime when Duke is playing poorly), but he also develops lasting relationships with them that go beyond hearing how terrible they're playing at that particular moment. Tom Coughlin was once a drill sergeant coach who berated his players and created a tense atmosphere, getting himself run out of Jacksonville because that approach has a pretty short shelf life when the players make more than the coaches. He adjusted and tweaked his style after a year out of football, got back into coaching with the Giants, and won two Super Bowls. Conversely, a guy like Greg Schiano doesn't seem to be reading the signals of a team that stopped listening a while ago, probably because they don't feel that he listens to them. You HAVE to have a decent grasp of your players' psychological makeup, and to recognize how to take the best tack with each individual while keeping your overall style consistent. This is why Phil Jackson was able to win enough rings for two hands despite coaching three egotistic stars (MJ, Shaq, Kobe) who weren't easy to manage, and two of whom absolutely loathed each other. People are different between the ears; even the military has grasped that. Without a level of mutual understanding, you will either wind up with tyranny or chaos.

Back to Miami. Once Martin decided to check out after the "last straw" incident, he took reports of the bullying behavior public (through his lawyer) rather than through team channels. This is significant. As Clay said, "If I was harassed at work and chose to stop showing up and contacted a local news channel to pitch the story, I would deservedly be ridiculed at my workplace and blackballed throughout the area." All good points. But is it possible that Martin didn't have any intra-team options? We have already seen that this behavior had been going on the entire year and a half of his NFL career, with no player as yet reaching out to assist him in any way. An NFL locker room is a poor place to discuss your emotional problems with someone, perhaps the poorest place that exists. Take all of the cultural assumptions about men needing to keep their "softer" emotions under wraps and multiply them by the testosterone of fifty-three young men who hit each other violently for a living, and you wind up with an atmosphere that's not exactly the couch on "The View."

That rules out other players. What about the coaching staff? Well, as already mentioned, they not only condoned but encouraged Incognito's tactics, and I'm guessing that since subtlety does not appear to be one of Incognito's stronger character traits (at the referenced golf tournament, for example, he rubbed the volunteer's crotch with a golf club, ground his junk against her butt, and dumped water in her face), I'm also guessing that Martin had heard loudly and often that Incognito "owned" him with the blessing of the coaches. So much for them. What about general manager Jeff Ireland, who drafted him? If he was aware of the decision to sic Incognito, then he's out too. If not, then Martin took the path of least resistance in opting to go through a media outlet rather than internal channels, and that was a poor decision. It seems apparent that the team's owner, Stephen Ross, was in the dark.

And now that all of this information has come out, the Dolphins' players have made the same mistake as the coaching staff before them, doubling down on their loyalty to Incognito. Some have gone so far as to call Incognito an "honorary black man," which is a statement so idiotic I cannot begin to comprehend it. I agree with ESPN columnist Jason Whitlock, who quoted the newspaper article that statement came from, which is here with his response:

"Richie is honorary," a black former Dolphins player told Miami Herald reporter Armando Salguero. "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."

I'm black. And I totally understand the genesis of this particular brand of stupidity and self-hatred. Mass Incarceration, its bastard child, Hurricane Illegitimacy, and their marketing firm, commercial hip-hop music, have created a culture that perpetrates the idea that authentic blackness is criminal, savage, uneducated and irresponsible. The tenets of white supremacy and bigotry have been injected into popular youth culture. The blackest things a black man can do are loudly spew the N-word publicly and react violently to the slightest sign of disrespect or disagreement.

Right now the Dolphins are 4-5 after their loss at Tampa Bay, but just one game out of a playoff spot behind the potentially combustible Jets (whom they still get to play twice). This whole situation has crippled their offensive line, depriving Miami of a very talented left guard and an at least adequate left tackle, both of whom are probably pretty necessary in order to protect inexperienced second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill, to say nothing of the running game.**** All this right before they play the following games: at Tampa Bay (loss), San Diego, Carolina, at New York Jets, at Pittsburgh, New England, at Buffalo, New York Jets. If Monday night was any indication (against a crappy team that may have quit on their coach more than a month ago), they're in for a rough ride, yet there is ZERO contrition from anyone in the locker room about how they allowed the situation to reach that point (something that is puzzling to veterans in pretty much every other locker room, even lowly Jacksonville). I find it all rather confusing, and frankly pretty stupid and short-sighted.

****It bears repeating; the Dolphins rushed for TWO YARDS against Tampa Bay.

Look, playing professional football is clearly not for everyone. It's a punishing, brutal game whose effects on body and mind alike are severe. But this whole absurd scenario has underscored the short shrift that mental health awareness gets in our society. By any measure, Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin were both valuable football players, and both also clearly have mental health issues that, while vastly different, affect their ability to perform to the best of their capabilities. Neither may ever play for the Dolphins again, and Martin in particular is going to have a difficult time finding another job in the league, unless he proves that he can be a real mauler on the line; other teams are going to naturally shy away from signing someone who "may not be a good fit in our locker room." Incognito is running out of strikes, but with his performance record will probably get another chance from someone, although hopefully not with any kind of official leadership role attached. In the end, Dolphins management, coaches, and players fostered an environment in which there was little to no control or personal accountability in the locker room, and their failure to police themselves has opened the organization up and turned it into a circus spectacle, seriously damaging the whole franchise in the immediate future.