Rape and domestic violence allegations. A murder indictment. Dog torture. Putting cash bounties up for committing game-ending or even career-ending injuries. Concussions that end careers and end lives with subsequent suicides. Denial over the concussions and a lame payout to the players and families who suffered. Insane salaries for players and even more insane profits for greedy owners who watch their product from skyboxes.
Bullying, at this point, seems sort of a gratuitous thing to add to the list. But the allegations again Miami Dolphins player Richie Incognito are truly disturbing – not just for the behavior itself, but for what it says about a league that has lost its mind in the name of obscene profits.
Incognito has been suspended from the 'Fins pending an investigation into charges he bullied teammate Jonathan Martin. That sounds at first like an overreaction. What's a little bullying or hazing after going on the field and facing the possibility of severe injury or paralysis at the hands of fellow players?
But Incognito, if the charges are true, personifies so much of what has gone wrong with the NFL. He apparently harassed Martin into contributing $15,000 to a Las Vegas dinner Martin never got to go to, hurled racial epithets at him and even threatened him physically. Incognito's a big guy, so that's a serious worry even for another pro ball player. And – displaying a level of immaturity that boggles the mind – players got up from a team lunch table and left after Martin sat down with his food. Martin is now seeking treatment for the harassment he endured.
The remarkable thing is that some of Incognito's teammates are defending him, saying he and Martin had been good friends and suggesting any teasing that went on as all in good fun. Those comments are suspect, since units of all kinds tend to circle the wagons when one of the group is challenged. And bullies defend bullies.
But where would Incognito get the idea that such behavior is acceptable? Where would he not get that idea? Football (which, stunningly, used to be played by much smaller men who wore leather helmets) now resembles something closer to a gladiator competition in an old Roman arena. Owners know people will pay to see good "hits';' coaches pressure the players, and the players pressure each other. I love football and miss the game I watched as a kid – the ones where a Hail Mary pass, an elegant spin of the ball, a gravity-defying leap to a touchdown and a graceful yet breakneck run down the field with seconds to go in the game defined a "great game. Now, it's all about the grunts and spine-chilling crunching sounds the microphone picks up when someone is ground into the turf.
The problem is that there's an enormous amount of money in football, and no one is (really) made to pay when someone gets badly, and deliberately, hurt. The $765 million settlement the NFL entered into to avoid a far bigger penalty for the concussions players have suffered was a joke. It's like allowing Wall Street firms to raid people's pensions and savings, ruining their lives, and then fine them an amount that sounds big to a regular American (like the ones needing their 401(k)s to retire), but which is pocket change to a financial services magnate. Rarely is anyone sent to jail or fined anything that really hurts.
Incognito, if the allegations are true, is an overgrown schoolyard bully who has no business playing pro ball – or for that matter, a pickup game in the park. The greater tragedy is that Incognito is not just a bad apple to be discarded. He's a symptom of a much more pervasive problem.