NEW YORK — A degree from an elite academic school can make a player a magnet for bullying from teammates in the National Football League, according to a former Harvard University linebacker who spent seven seasons in the NFL.
Isaiah Kacyvenski, who last played in the NFL in 2006, said he wasn’t surprised by the alleged harassment that led former Stanford University offensive lineman Jonathan Martin to leave the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins two days ago suspended fellow lineman Richie Incognito for detrimental conduct as they and the NFL investigate the matter.
“I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner,” said Kacyvenski, who holds a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard and now directs sports business at the biomedical technology company MC10 Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. “This is a wakeup call for a lot of people. I was made fun of for a lot of reasons. Only in the NFL can a Harvard degree have negative consequences.”
Kacyvenski, 36, played six of his seven seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. He said some teammates thought he was a “rich, pampered kid” when he entered the NFL and that he did whatever he could to avoid confirming a “preconceived notion of what a Harvard grad was.”
Even so, he didn’t fit the NFL mold and would often anger teammates by raising his hand during team meetings to ask questions about the way things were being done and the reasoning behind them, he said in a telephone interview.
“In the NFL, if you don’t do things the way other people do, you stick out, you make yourself a target for ridicule,” Kacyvenski said. “Every day’s the same, so it’s, âLet’s find a way to entertain ourselves,’ sometimes at the expense of others. Having someone be the butt of jokes has been around for a long time. It’s like a cancer that eats away at your team.”
The NFL Players Association said this week in a statement that it expects the NFL and its clubs to “create a safe and professional workplace” for players.
“As the representative organization of all players, the NFLPA will insist on a fair investigation for all involved,” the union said in the statement. “We will continue to remain in contact with the impacted players, their representatives and player leadership.”
Former Green Bay Packers executive Andrew Brandt, who’s now a business analyst for ESPN, said it’s a myth that NFL teams are a united group of 60 players, and that “jocularity or hazing” happens in every locker room.
“It’s really little pockets of guys who are tight and I would hesitate to say any pocket is more close than offensive linemen,” Brandt said in a telephone interview. “It’s as close to a fraternity as any component of the team, which is why this is more shocking to me.”
Incognito, 30, asked Martin, 24, to contribute financially last summer to an unofficial team trip to Las Vegas, and in April left him an expletive-filled voice message that contained a racial slur and threats of physical violence, according to ESPN. Martin, who didn’t go with his teammates to Las Vegas, gave Incognito $15,000, the report said, citing unidentified people familiar with the situation.
The 6-foot-5, 312-pound Martin left the team on Oct. 28 after the other offensive linemen stood up and walked away from the lunch table in the Dolphins’ practice facility when Martin arrived and sat down with his food, NFL.com said.
Martin is in his second season with the Dolphins after being taken in the second round of the 2012 draft from Stanford, where he majored in Classical Studies. Martin’s parents both graduated from Harvard.
The 6-foot-3, 315-pound Incognito is a nine-year NFL veteran from the University of Nebraska who was cut by the St. Louis Rams in 2009 after he twice head-butted opposing players in a game against the Tennessee Titans and got into a sideline confrontation with then-coach Steve Spagnuolo. Incognito that year was voted the NFL’s “Dirtiest Player” in a player poll conducted by the Sporting News.
Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said Monday that the team decided to suspend Incognito indefinitely after being contacted by Martin’s representatives with concerns about player misconduct. The Dolphins also asked the NFL to get involved and conduct a workplace review.
“It’s going to be comprehensive, it’s going to be objective, and we as an organization are going to give our full cooperation,” Philbin said at a news conference. “If the review shows that this is not a safe atmosphere I will take whatever steps necessary to ensure that it is. I have that obligation to the players I coach on a daily basis.”
NFL agent Eugene Lee said there’s hazing, usually involving rookies, in all locker rooms.
“There are rituals like bad haircuts given by vets, some teams have rookies do water slides on the field, carry equipment, buy doughnuts,” Lee said by phone. “This is normal. But as was seen and evidenced by some of the texts and voice mail text released on ESPN, this level of hazing goes above and beyond any acceptable norm.”
During his first year with the Dallas Cowboys in 2010, wide receiver Dez Bryant refused to carry veteran receivers’ pads off the practice field, a common rookie tradition.
When quarterback Tim Tebow was a rookie in Denver, older players shaved the top of his head during training camp, leaving a ring of hair that resembled a monk. Tebow, now out of the NFL, has said the exercise helped build team unity.
The NFL and the Dolphins have heard the voice message left for Martin in which Incognito used a racial epithet, ESPN said. There are also text messages that contain derogatory terms referring to sexual orientation, according to the network.
“It seems to me that we are talking about the degree here and crossing the line in severity,” Brandt said, “And what’s been reported has obviously crossed the line.”
Incognito hasn’t issued a public statement about his suspension. His agent, David Dunn, didn’t return messages left at his office seeking comment. Martin’s agent, Kenneth Zuckerman, also didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
Martin’s former coach at Stanford, David Shaw, said he’s proud of Martin for speaking out about bullying in the NFL.
Shaw also told the Bay Area News Group that he doesn’t think there’s any tension between Stanford-educated players and others in the NFL from different backgrounds. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft out of Stanford and former Cardinal players Zach Ertz, Jeremy Stewart and Doug Baldwin were among those to score touchdowns in the NFL last week.
“We do a pretty good job of educating our guys on what that next level is like, both the locker room and on the field and in the world,” Shaw was quoted as saying by the Bay Area News Group. “We’re talking about something that, as more comes out, we’re finding out this is not just Jon being oversensitive, this is Jonathan being the first person to speak out about what’s been going on.”
While Philbin said he was unaware of any alleged harassment until being contacted by Martin’s representatives, Kacyvenski said it’s his responsibility as Dolphins coach to be aware of the locker room environment.
Kacyvenski said when he was in Seattle, former Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren met with player representatives once or twice a week to hear about any concerns. On the first day of training camp each year, Holmgren would tell players hazing was unacceptable and that he didn’t want rookies to worry about anything besides football, Kacyvenski said.
“There’s enough stress in the everyday life of making a team and trying to stay on the team,” Kacyvenski said. “The whole idea of hazing is outdated, it’s gone. It’s a Neanderthal way to have this rite of passage. The rite of passage is how you play on Sunday.”
—With assistance from Eben Novy-Williams in New York and Curtis Eichelberger in Wilmington, Del.