After a season in which its player conduct policy, disciplinary procedures and overall management scheme was called into justifiable question, the NFL is undoubtedly happy to have one of the most trying campaigns in recent memory over and done with.
Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald were just a few of the names that found themselves in the headlines for something other than a touchdown, an interception, a sack or a moment on the field. The Super Bowl had its own series of issues with the New England Patriots spending much of the ramp up to the game defending themselves against still-unresolved accusations that they intentionally deflated footballs during the AFC Championship Game; Marshawn Lynch refusing to say anything other than, “I’m just here so I don’t get fined”; the Seattle Seahawks unprofessional and borderline repulsive behavior during the game itself and as they threw an embarrassing teamwide tantrum after they lost; and the aftermath of the game in which three separate players who weren’t involved in the Super Bowl – Joseph Randle, D’Qwell Jackson and Letroy Guion – were arrested on a variety of offenses that only added to the league’s woes.
The series of embarrassments that the league and commissioner Roger Goodell had to endure and are still in the process of navigating have obscured what had been a “major” controversy that drew worldwide attention and commentary in 2013, former Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito and the accusations of bullying teammate Jonathan Martin to the point that Martin up and left the team. In hindsight, everything that happened since has minimized the Incognito-Martin episode, accusations and complaints into what Incognito and many others portrayed it to be: athletes who took locker room horseplay and went too far with it to the point where Martin quit and Incognito was essentially fired from the team and blackballed from the NFL for an unofficial yearlong suspension.
Incognito’s behavior, while misanthropic and destructive to both himself and his team, was nothing compared to what’s happened with a troubling number of players since. It certainly wasn’t enough for him to have to sit out an entire season while he could still contribute somewhere. Several teams considered signing him, but none did making it a clear question as to whether there was a whisper campaign against him.
For a player like Incognito to return to the league, he needed one of two things: a no-nonsense coach who would put him on notice that he had one strike to play with and if he misbehaved in any way, he’d be gone; or a coach who he’d respect and would be freewheeling enough to make clear to Incognito that there was a certain standard of behavior even when it came to off-field goofing around and if that was violated, he’d be gone.
With the news that Incognito is close to signing with the Buffalo Bills, he’s getting the latter in Rex Ryan. While in Miami, head coach Joe Philbin put forth the impression of the substitute teacher so worried about keeping his job and intimidated by the possibility that the players would simply ignore him if he cracked down that it was easier to look the other way. Ryan is so worshiped by his players that if he’s betrayed, it could be seen as a hurtful affront to the trust he’s placed in those under his charge to protect him as he protects them.
In the linked article detailing the Bills’ pending signing of Incognito, it’s mentioned that Ryan, when speaking at his introductory press conference as the new head coach, said that he was going to “build a bully.” Obviously, that was a poor choice of words given the negative connotations with bullying today and that the league has been trying to put a damper on the hazing that was once an ingrained rite of passage for new players in the league. He certainly didn’t sign Incognito with the idea that he wanted people who had reputations as bullies.
Incognito did some stupid things while he was with the Dolphins and his reputation prior to that was terrible. Now that he’s getting his second chance and playing for a coach who will allow a wide range of personalities on his team to be themselves, he won’t want to blow that with similar acts that got him tossed from the Dolphins and the rest of football for a full season-and-a-half. Considering what’s happened to the league, its players and its commissioner in the time since Incognito was a household name for all the wrong reasons, it’s nothing and he deserves another chance without having to apologize anymore.