Eight months ago, on the final night of the annual league meeting, I sat in a booth at City Hall Steakhouse in Scottsdale, Ariz., and talked about leadership with Richie Incognito.
Before the first appetizer arrived, Incognito, a Miami Dolphins guard coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance, brought up the recent (Karlos Dansby, Reggie Bush) and impending (Jake Long) departures of several key veterans.
"They got rid of all the leaders," Incognito said. "I'm going to have to fill that void -- I know that."
In his own, admittedly twisted, way, Incognito attempted to do just that, projecting his personality throughout the Dolphins' locker room in a large-and-in-charge manner. And while the results have been disastrous -- Incognito was suspended indefinitely Sunday for conduct detrimental to the team after coach Joe Philbin and general manager Jeff Ireland learned of his racially charged voice mail to troubled teammate Jonathan Martin -- something tells me that when all is said and done, there'll be plenty of blame to go around.
On Wednesday, the Sun Sentinel reported that Dolphinscoaches had asked Incognito to "toughen up" Martin after the second-year pro missed a voluntary workout last spring -- an edict that seemed to precipitate the voice mail, which also contained the words "I'll kill you." The organization had no response to the report, citing an ongoing NFL investigation.
On Thursday, the league announced that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had appointed New York-based criminal lawyer Ted Wells to direct an independent probe into "issues of workplace conduct" within the Dolphins organization.
As the scabs are pulled and the underbelly of NFL locker-room culture is examined and evaluated, we will want answers -- and they might not be as clear-cut and convenient as some would lead you to believe.
For starters, the relationship between Incognito and Martin, who left the team last week and checked himself into a hospital, is more nuanced than most outsiders realize.
Clearly, as comments Wednesday from Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill illustrate, Incognito considered Martin a good friend -- and those feelings seemingly were reciprocated.
"If you asked Jonathan Martin who his best friend is on this team two weeks ago, he'd say Richie Incognito," Tannehill told reporters. "First guy to stand up for Jonathan when anything went down on the field, any kind of tussle, Richie was the first guy there. When they wanted to hang out outside of football, who was together? Richie and Jonathan."
Through the prism that this type of declaration creates, it's tough to reconcile the charge that Incognito was bullying Martin. This is not to say the two men might not have been perceiving their interactions and overall relationship in somewhat divergent terms -- or that it is ever OK to make the kind of racially disparaging comments Incognito did on the voice mail in question.
Yet "bullying" connotes a concerted and mean-spirited attempt to harass and intimidate another teammate -- and I'll be surprised if Incognito's behavior ultimately is judged to fall into that category. I've seen players shunned, ostracized and harassed by a majority of their teammates; this was not the case with Martin, who was communicating with Incognito in a manner suggesting friendship as recently as Sunday afternoon.
There's still a lot that hasn't been uncovered. What if, for example, we learn Martin made similarly extreme, loaded and over-the-top statements to Incognito? If neither player took such language to be literally threatening, that would significantly alter the context.
The fact that Martin still had Incognito's months-old voice mail saved on his phone strikes me as potentially substantial -- perhaps, to him, this was an instance in which a line had been crossed, regardless of whether the man who crossed it was aware of this. Let's remember, first and foremost, that issues of emotional distress are complex and serious -- and that even if Martin is dealing with legitimate workplace harassment, he's also fighting something far more severe.
We also should consider the fact that the alleged perpetrator, Incognito, has dealt with mental-health issues in his past, adding another layer of complication to the situation.
And there is no shortage of layering: Consider the lack of overt outrage about Incognito's racist comments in the Miami locker room -- and, in fact, almost a uniform show of support from the Dolphins for their chastened teammate. On Thursday, the Miami Herald's Armando Salguero reported that, according to multiple sources, Incognito, though white, is considered an "honorary black man" by his teammates, whereas Martin (who is, in fact, biracial) is considered "less black" than Incognito.
This, in turn, brings up issues of background (Martin is from a well-to-do family with a wall's worth of Ivy League degrees) and perceived "softness" -- and the notion that Martin, by allowing the rough-around-the-edges Incognito to be scapegoated, is in some way acting in a dishonorable fashion.
Dolphins offensive tackle Tyson Clabo said Martin "needs to stand up and be a man. I don't know why he's doing this."
If you're starting to sense that the Dolphins aren't on message -- and that this important and complex crisis has the potential to get a lot worse in the coming weeks -- well, trust your instincts.
Though, by NFL policy, Martin (to the extent that he ever gets well enough to resume his career) cannot be retaliated against for reporting an unsafe workplace environment, he is provoking plenty of skepticism in league circles and within his own locker room.
This brings us back to the Dolphins' leadership issues that came up during that dinner in Scottsdale in March. If this investigation reveals organizational dysfunction, it would not be surprising to see Philbin and Ireland lose their jobs.
And it could be worse: Should evidence exist that Incognito was acting at the behest of one or both of his superiors, we'd be getting into "A Few Good Men" territory. Essentially, we might be looking at a situation in which authority figures in the organization ordered a player with a history of anger issues and mental instability to carry out a Code Red on a player struggling with issues of emotional stress, and the player in question complied in his own, untidy way.
The truth is that, for better or worse, an NFL locker room is a subculture unto itself where everyone (myself included) gets messed with and has to learn how to navigate the situation in order to survive and thrive. We can have a much longer conversation about the relative merit of this state of affairs, and I truly hope no one uses it as a rationalization for insensitivity to mental-health/emotional-stress issues, racism, true harassment or violent retaliation, because those things are never acceptable under the law.
That said, this is the mini-universe in which some of us reside, and we can't completely discard the ethos of intra-team dynamics and the perspective from which many football people are processing this burgeoning fiasco.
I'll leave you with the words of one NFL lifer who works in an NFC team's personnel department -- and please, rest assured that they are not the divergent rants of an outlier:
"Locker rooms have nothing to do with what people consider to be 'real America.' Really, football and normal society have nothing in common. Football locker rooms are the most libertarian societies in America.
"It's actually real America. It's no holds barred on anything, and if you have an issue, you solve it with your family. You don't run for the hills and hide or start being a (expletive); you face your (expletive) demons.
"If you had a politically correct team full of Jonathan Martins, the fans of that team would be (expletive) pissed. You need Incognito on that wall."
In a perfect world -- or, if we can get there, in a better, more evolved NFL subculture -- there'd be room for both types of teammate. In the meantime, prepare for a maelstrom of blame, conflict and pink slips.
For when all is said and done, it might well be that Incognito is merely the first domino to fall.