The NFL, the most popular U.S. pro sports league, has been shaken by the allegations of racist hazing that have led to the suspension of one member of the Miami Dolphins and the abrupt decision by his teammate to leave the team and enter counseling.
The case has focused attention on the brutal sport's time-honored tradition of teasing, hazing and joking around that happens in the typical National Football League locker room, and has raised questions about whether the tradition goes too far, especially when it comes to the youngest players.
In the case of the Miami Dolphins, players say they've never seen the kind of accusations of out-and-out bullying and harassment at the heart of why second-year player Jonathan Martin suddenly left the team a week ago because of emotional distress. His teammate, veteran Richie Incognito, was suspended indefinitely by the team.
According to two people familiar with the case, the 319-pound (145-kilogram) Incognito, who is white, sent racist and threatening text messages to 312-pound (141-kilogram) Martin, who is biracial. The people spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the Dolphins and NFL haven't disclosed the nature of the misconduct that led to Incognito's suspension.
The curtains don't often get pulled back on this sort of thing in the NFL. But when they do they garner quite a bit of attention in a country where even a regular-season NFL game gains higher TV ratings than baseball's World Series.
The ongoing saga has raised questions about whether Miami coach Joe Philbin and his staff were negligent in allowing issues between Martin and Incognito to fester. Current and ex-players around the NFL say the situation reflects a lack of leadership because teammates of Martin and Incognito didn't intervene. The players' union issued a statement Tuesday saying it expects the NFL and teams to "create a safe and professional workplace for all players.''
Martin left the team last week and is with his family in California, where he is undergoing counseling for emotional issues.
NFL officials are trying to determine who knew what when, and whether Incognito, ninth-year pro, harassed or bullied Martin. A senior partner in a New York law firm with experience in sports cases was appointed Wednesday by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to investigate possible misconduct in the Dolphins' workplace and prepare a report that will be made public.
Players on other teams recounted stories this week of bringing breakfast sandwiches to players at their position or purchasing trays of food before road trips. But none revealed anything approaching the $US15,000 that Martin reportedly coughed up for a Las Vegas trip other players took. Or the types of text messages apparently involved.
Washington veteran Nick Barnett explained that younger players are sometimes stuck with $US5,000 dinner tabs. They're told to tote the helmets or pads of older players. Men who are often well above 6-feet (1.8-metres) tall are held down and given unwanted haircuts or get their eyebrows shaved.
During preseason training camp last year, New York Giant Prince Amukamara was tossed into a tub of ice water by teammate Jason Pierre-Paul.
"What I went through wasn't bullying at all,'' Amukamara said this week. "It was just more of fun in the locker room. Of course, nobody's going to be happy being thrown into a cold tub of water, but ... things can get out of hand sometimes.''
Like several other players around the NFL, Amukamara latched onto two particular elements of the Miami situation that moved past normal fun: "Anything that's racial or threatening, I think that's in the definition of bullying,'' he said.
Some veterans, such as Minnesota Viking Jared Allen, consider such happenings a rite of passage they hope won't disappear entirely.
"Some of the younger guys come in and there's a sense of entitlement, and you lose that work ethic, you lose that true veteran-led locker room sometimes,'' said Allen, who said he's seen teammates fork over $50,000 or more. "You got to know who you're dealing with. You can't treat everyone the same. You can't treat every rookie the same.
"Some guys are more sensitive than others.''
Several players said they think it's up to players to prevent the behavior that goes beyond good-natured joking.
That, they say, was the failure in Miami.
"I know Jonathan Martin didn't feel comfortable enough to go to any of the guys, because either you're encouraging it or you're just turning a blind eye and allowing the guy to get treated like he was getting treated,'' Washington veteran London Fletcher said. "And that's the biggest thing that disappointed me. ... There was not a veteran guy strong enough to stop what was happening.''