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Richie Incognito: Hazing, bullying or hate crime?

Published On: Nov 07 2013 11:51:35 AM CST
Updated On: Nov 07 2013 11:53:00 AM CST
Richie Incognito

From Miami Dolphins

By attorney Melba Pearson, Special to THELAW.TV

Richie Incognito is not so incognito these days. Instead of receiving attention for his plays on the field, his career is possibly over due to his bullying of a teammate. Incognito is alleged to have made racist comments to Jonathan Martin, a fellow teammate on the Miami Dolphins, and bullying him to the point that Martin left the team. Ironically, Incognito appeared in a Dolphins public service announcement that is played at home games, asking fans to behave in a "civilized" manner, and not be unruly during games.

It seems crazy. Martin is 6'5", 312 pounds, and Incognito is 6'3", 319 pounds. One would think the two players, trained to hit hard on the field, would just fight it out in the locker room and call it a day. However, it went deeper than that. Incognito was part of a group of veteran players who hazed Martin, including forcing him to pay for them to go on a trip to Vegas, to a tune of $25,000. They played childish pranks on him, such as inviting him to sit with the group for a meal, then getting up and leaving him alone when he sat down at the table.

And then there were the racial comments. Incognito, who is white, called Martin (who is biracial) "half a n—" and threatened his family. Not to mention the ultimate sin … talking about Martin's mother. These threats were made in voicemails, as well as text messages. As a result, now there is even talk of charging Incognito with a federal hate crime. Under federal statutes resulting from the Civil Rights Act, it is unlawful to intimidate or threaten someone because of their race and participation in a protected activity (such as voting or participation in a state or federally-funded program).

Keep in mind, we watch football for fun; for the players, it's their workplace. The same workplace rules apply in football that apply to any other field of work. However, the NFL workplace is a very different animal. The aspect that is making this case unique is that of the "locker room" culture. Men are encouraged to be hard on each other emotionally, whack each other's backsides with towels, and be macho guys. As fans, we admire, as well as reward, their toughness on the field. However, there is no way to force players to turn that toughness off when they exit the field.

Also remember that Martin is a second-year player, having joined the team in the 2012 NFL draft from Stanford University. He's young (age 24), at a relatively new job, and is now being pushed around by veteran teammates. He wants to fit in; but how much is enough? Martin was viewed as vulnerable by the senior players, as well as possibly the coaching staff. Clearly, Martin took all he could until he suffered an emotional breakdown. No one wants to be harassed at work. Bullying turns a dream job into a living nightmare.

I doubt Richie Incognito will be federally prosecuted. Unless the Dolphins receive state or federal funding, it will be a stretch to find a link that would give Martin protection under the federal hate crime statutes. Secondly, there may be too much professional backlash for Martin, who has been traumatized to the point of taking a break from football and going to his home city for therapy. Without a cooperative victim, the case would be short-lived. Lastly, from the tone of the transcripts released of the texts/voice messages, it may be difficult to show that the statements were more than Incognito being an obnoxious bully. There may be an argument to be made for some sort of stalking charge. But, again, it would be weak at best. New reports surfaced that the Dolphins coaching staff may have egged Incognito on, encouraging him to "toughen Martin up." If that is the case, there may be a viable civil lawsuit. Coaches need to look at what kind of environment they are creating and act accordingly.

Should Incognito be prosecuted? No.

Fired? Absolutely.

Blacklisted from the NFL? Everyone deserves a second chance. If he issues an apology, comes out publicly against racism and bullying, and stops acting like an idiot, there may be some redemption in a season or two. His PR agent has a lot of work in the years ahead.

The author Melba Pearson is a prosecutor in South Florida. Follow her on Twitter @ResLegalDiva.