Shoutouts: Ex-NFL “weirdo” Ryan Riddle on the Incognito-Martin affair
The Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying story dominated the U.S. sports conversation last week, and continues to be a major issue. If you were to read only one piece about the affair, I’d recommend Ryan Riddle‘s Bleacher Report story, Former NFL Player on Bullying: I Was the Team ‘Weirdo’ on New York Jets
“I too have experienced some of the very stresses that would eventually take a 6’5″, 310-pound man to the brink of his own sanity,” Riddle writes. “Like Martin, I am of a mixed-race background, with a black father and a white mother. Both Martin and I are products of academically prestigious college environments and just so happen to be soft spoken, quiet and, at times, socially awkward.”
Riddle, a former linebacker, first describes his rookie hazing with the Oakland Raiders, which he calls “nearly entirely a positive one.” He got stuck with a $5,000 bill for his share of a dinner he didn’t even attend, but mostly, he writes, the relatively gentle hazing—carrying veterans’ shoulder pads, performing in a rookie talent show, etc.—helped him feel like a part of the team:
It should be understood that general forms of rookie hazing are not some terrifying epidemic that needs to be eradicated, but rather a special ritual that, when done properly, can help cement new relationships, show respect to those who came before us, and incubate a healthy chemistry within the locker room.
The trouble began for Riddle when he was cut by the Raiders during his second season, which he describes as a traumatic event, and signed with the Jets. Now he was a newcomer, an outsider, having missed the bonding exercises of the preseason: “Inside jokes and character boundaries had already been established,” he writes. And he had no time to play social catch-up because he had to learn a new playbook. Being naturally reserved didn’t help.
Riddle writes that the team culture was different in New York than it had been in Oakland. It was “much more abrasive. The locker-room banter seemed to be fraught with belittling one another; it was a dynamic I was neither well-versed in nor good at navigating through … I became so afraid of having the roast turned on me that I would do everything I could to go unnoticed.”
He became so good at making himself invisible that he actually escaped most ridicule, but “merely the fear of ridicule … haunted me to a state of paralysis.” The thing that seems to have saved Riddle is that, despite appearances off the field, he wasn’t a pushover on it. He used football as “an outlet and a stage to prove that even though I may be quiet and unassuming, I am not someone you want to mess with.”
Finally, Riddle goes on to consider Incognito, and, without condoning anything Incognito is alleged to have said or done, he perhaps surprisingly warns that “we should be careful with any attempts to make a uniquely demanding sport tolerable for those who struggle to thrive within it.” That is, people like Jonathan Martin.
No matter how you feel about the Incognito-Martin situation, how it should have been handled and what should happen from here on out, it’s impossible to read Riddle’s piece and not come away with a better understanding, not only of what happened, but of why everyone involved reacted the way they did.
Here are three other pieces about the same subject that I think stood last week: Mike Freeman wrote two incisive stories: Hazing and Bullies a Fact of NFL Life, but Are They Necessary Evils? and How Could Black Miami Dolphins Players Be OK with the N-Word? This Is How. And longtime Yahoo Sports columnist Jason Cole made his Bleacher Report debut with NFL Execs: Ugly, Predictable Mismatch Jeopardizes Futures of Martin, Incognito, in which he discussed the two players with several team personnel executives.