Professional sports teams have given us several ironic names. "Saints" that were accused of intentionally injuring football players on other teams; "World Peace" who was anything but that while on the basketball court; and, now, "Incognito" who was hardly inconspicuous in his ranting, bullying and otherwise obnoxious behavior.
Maybe it's time that professional sports recognize the maxim used by corporate CEOs: "You hire on competence, but fire on character." In any truly successful organization, both must go hand-in-hand. Good character represents the behavior that lifts people up, exhibits kindness, does good, and synthesizes other-regarding and community values into building a positive culture within the team, whether in sports or life. That may not be the Merriam-Webster definition, but it's my take, based on training almost 70,000 teens to build cultures of kindness, caring and respect by putting their values-in-action.
Character, in a nutshell, shapes the "rules of the game," the behavior that is necessary for any team to thrive. Bad character, like in Enron and others like it, also shapes culture, but in a negative way that ultimately unravels the organization.
The Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin incident -- both on and off the field -- reveals a culture where the "rules of the game" at best tolerated and at worst endorsed a "Wild West" culture of meanness, hazing, bullying and anything-goes.
Here are the facts, as reported by news bureaus and players. Martin, a Stanford grad, never really fit in. Players and coaches described him as shy, awkward, and stand-offish. Former player Lydon Murtha, Dolphins offensive tackle from 2008-12 recently said that, "Martin did not seem to be one of the group," citing, among other examples, that he didn't want to pay for a "rookie dinner" for which Murtha, when he was a rookie, paid $9,600. Also, Martin refused to go on an offensive line trip to Las Vegas.
Comments by other players reveal that Incognito was asked by coaches to "toughen him (Martin) up" and get in his face. Incognito took that license to the extreme, engaging in physical and verbal abuse, culminating in the now infamous voice mail message to Martin that called him a "half n**ger" and "piece of sh*t". The last straw -- and humiliation to Martin -- was when an entire table of players stood up and left just as he sat down to eat. In any high school, we'd call that bullying behavior.
What is obvious in this incident is that the Dolphins locker room's culture shaped and goaded Incognito, reinforcing already-troubling behavior that in 2009 earned him "NFL's dirtiest player" designation by Sporting News. As reported by Ron Jaworski of ESPN.com, Incognito said:
"All this stuff coming out, it speaks to the culture of our locker room, our closeness, our brotherhood. And the racism, the bad words, that's what I regret most. But that's a product of the environment."
Kind of like, he had no choice, no personal control -- it was just meant to be; just following orders. Society has certainly heard these rationalized words before.
In a separate interview, former teammate Murtha reinforces Incognito's comments about culture and the "rules" of the Dolphins' game:
"The coaches know everything. The coaches know who's getting picked on and in many cases call for that player to be singled out ... What people want to call bullying is never going away from football."
If this is true, then football and other sports will not set the example that owners and other executives hope for in their continuing efforts for players to be role models for young people and otherwise to help shape our greater culture. What's encouraged by youth rec-league coaches (and I was one of them), by school coaches, and by parents as "sportsmanship" is constantly undermined by a culture of meanness, disregard and win-at-all-costs in professional sports.
Even in the wake of the accusations, suspension and embarrassment -- and similar to blaming the victim in recent bullying, teen suicide and rape cases that have been in the news -- professional players weighed in to defend the perpetrator, justify the culture and trash the victim:
Lydon Murtha: "Martin broke the code, and it shows that he's not there for his teammates."
Lawrence Taylor: "If you are that sensitive and weak-minded, then find another profession."
Tiki Barber: "Every team wants a guy like Richie Incognito."
The irony in all of this is that Incognito was the one who represented the Dolphins in videos urging fans to follow a "fan code of conduct" -- good behavior, civility and the like -- while attending games. Was there no other "code of conduct" for the players?
Last week, during World Kindness Week, 2,000 teen leaders at Project Love's annual Kickoff for Kindness in Cleveland, Ohio defined the "rules of the game" they wanted to take back to their schools and spread to their peers. Their tweets about kindness, love, courage, encouragement, success and positive "winning at the game of life" can be instructional and inspirational tools for professional football and other sports. To see a complete list, go to www.projectlove.org
A few years ago, I asked award-winning Glenville High School football coach Ted Ginn, Sr. about his rules for turning out high-performing and winning teams of good character. He said that his play book always emphasized two words: Values and Love. Values are the software for the mind. Love is the way you treat one another. At Glenville, they're both out in the open, talked about, absorbed, and never, never -- ah -- "incognito."
Muszynski is Founder and CEO of Purple America, a national initiative of Project Love/Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialog around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us