The Miami Dolphins are 5-5, sitting just outside of an AFC wild card spot and believing they finally have the franchise quarterback they have sought for years.
One of the hottest teams in the NFL, the Carolina Panthers, comes to town this weekend.
But the Dolphins have been in the national headlines for all the wrong reasons.
A hazing and bullying scandal involving Pro Bowl offensive lineman Richie Incognito and second-year lineman Jonathan Martin has rocked the Dolphins’ world. New York attorney Ted Wells is conducting interviews this week at Miami’s facilities with coaches and players at the request of the NFL. Incognito is suspended indefinitely while the investigation continues.
The reports of alleged bullying and harassment have opened a larger conversation around the league about the culture of the NFL and whether it leads to the types of abuse reported in Miami.
“There is a certain type of camaraderie that I think is rare among football (players),” Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell said. “There’s a big difference between following the culture and abusing and bullying somebody. I’ve never been a part of any type of abusing or bullying someone. I have been a part of bringing young guys along in a certain culture that is the NFL. That happens.
“No one’s really come out and wrote a set document on what’s the line, but I think guys know what’s right and what’s wrong. Stay in that line of how you would want to be treated. Making someone carry a pad isn’t the worst thing in the world, but there are other things that are bad.”
Among some of the harassment Incognito is accused of: Forcing Martin to pay $15,000 for a trip he didn’t take; having rookies pay exorbitant amounts of money for team dinners; leaving death threats on Martin’s voicemail; and holding position group meetings at strip clubs.
None of the Panthers interviewed in recent weeks has said anything like that has happened in Carolina. But a picture of what is acceptable for younger players in the NFL became clearer through interviews.
Rookies have been seen carrying the pads of veteran teammates, especially during training camp and less during the season. Steve Smith said last week he sometimes pays for meals for teammates, and that at some point everyone in the locker room has paid for meals for others.
Often it’s the younger players who go on food runs for the team, though eight-year veteran Chase Blackburn, who did not practice Thursday with a foot injury, passed out food boxes that day.
“It wasn’t thousands of dollars,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said, recalling his rookie year. “It wasn’t like that. Basically you just buy food during the week.
“It’s different. And half the time the vets pay for it, and just make the rookies go get it. There’s a lot of things changing in the NFL. I don’t know their situation down there.”
Linebacker Thomas Davis, a linebacker in his ninth season, said he’s only known three locker rooms – his high school, the University of Georgia, and the Panthers – in his career, but he’s never witnessed an issue in the Panthers’ locker room.
“I think that we’ve done a great job, or the organization has done a great job, of bringing in high-character guys,” Davis said. “When you do that, you’re going to have a good locker room. We’ve always had good leaders and good younger guys who have come in and listened to the leaders on the team.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera pointed to Davis’ welcoming nature, along with the inclusiveness of Jordan Gross and Mike Tolbert, as reasons why he believes the Panthers have a good locker room.
Though he wouldn’t get into the specifics of Miami’s situation, Rivera said he’d have an idea of how to handle it from past experiences.
“When I played for Mike Ditka, the thing he always did was he looked for a rallying point,” Rivera said. “Let’s circle the wagons, let’s take care of ourselves and whatever we do, we do together. That was always coach’s way of making sure we stayed focused. I can imagine that’s how I would try to handle it.”
Both Miami coach Joe Philbin and defensive end Cameron Wake sidestepped questions about the investigation, referring instead to the team’s statement about cooperating with the process. But Wake said the team has gone about its business as if it’s any other week.
Philbin said the Dolphins have done well focusing on the task at hand this week against Carolina and pointed to his team winning two of the past three games as proof against any distractions.
And just because there’s a cloud hanging over the Dolphins doesn’t mean anyone from Carolina is taking them lightly.
“If you ask me that, they’re handling it well,” Davis said. “They lined up and played San Diego and they beat them. So it doesn’t look like much of a distraction to me.”
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