With Richard Incognito receiving much well-deserved criticism after apparently “bullying” Jonathon Martin, it is essential to look at “hazing,” “bullying” and other “rituals” undertaken by sports teams, including the San Francisco 49ers.
All NFL teams have their rituals. They bring teammates together provide communal experiences that encourage bonding. When it goes too far, however, outsiders are quick to either a) write it off as something athletes do, or b) attack it as inhumane and unjustifiable. So what is this situation?
No one is coming to the defense of Incognito. No one should. However, should he simply be written off as an inhumane beast? Jerk, perhaps, but he was on the Miami Dolphins Leadership Council! How could he get on the Leadership Council if he did not have some worth as a person? Furthermore, if the Dolphins are letting members of their Leadership Council insult quality teammates the way he did—search for the voicemail if you want to see some incredibly offensive language—then what does that say about their organization?
As for the 49ers, Eddie Debartolo Jr. was always known for taking good care of his players. I once saw Mike Singletary speak at a conference, long before he got back into the NFL as a coach—and long before his 49ers roller coaster—that if he could have played for any team other than the Chicago Bears, it would have been the 49ers, simply because of the respect with which they treated their players. That seems to carry on today.
Jim Harbaugh brought to the 49ers an intense work ethic, but he also brought a great respect for each individual’s work. Yes, he too has brought his rituals (“Who’s got it better than us?!” and the blue-collar mechanic shirts come to mind), but these have been absolutely harmless and have been positive in that they actually contribute to a team attitude and mindset, unlike Incognito’s acts.
Like many, I went through hazing rituals for high school athletics. I remember being forced to do certain acts in the basketball locker room that I am not sure if I am allowed to post on this site. I also remember mentioning it to only one person outside of my team. As for my teammates, I always just laughed. Did I get over it? After a few years, yes. However, it was miniscule compared to what Incognito allegedly had been doing to Martin. I hope the Dolphins and Martin—and even Incognito—can get this mess straightened out soon. I also hope this extent of “hazing” or whatever you wish to call it is not present in Santa Clara.