NFL Hazing Victim: Incognito Was A "Scumbag" And "Locker-Room Cancer"

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Whatever happened in Miami remains hopelessly muddled and controversial, moreso with each Dolphin who defends Richie Incognito and each release from Jonathan Martin's camp. But as the bullying appears confined to verbal, emotional, and financial, it's worth remembering how hazing in the NFL was much, much worse not too long ago.


The Los Angeles Times catches up with former tight end Cam Cleeland, an eight-year veteran who retired in 2005. Cleeland was the victim of one of the NFL's most notorious military-style hazing scandals. As a Saints rookie in 1998, Cleeland was forced to "run the gantlet"—go through a hallway with a pillowcase over his head as players lined up on either side to take their shots.

"You tried to make it through, and they literally just beat the ever-loving crap out of you as you tried to get through. Everything you can imagine, from kicking, punching, scrapping. I remember my ankle was sore and I had missed two days of practice because I had rolled my ankle. Guys were like, 'He's got a bum ankle! We don't care!' And as I got to the end, I got punched in the nose, so my nose was bleeding. As I rolled my head, I got kicked in the leg and my ankle rolled. I brought my head up …"

And that's when the fateful blow came, one that not only changed Cleeland's life but turned a spotlight on the dark underbelly of professional football. Cleeland was clubbed in the face by a sock filled with coins, coins that free-agent linebacker Andre Royal had spent all day collecting from teammates. Nobody knew what he planned to do with them, but they had donated them by the fistful. Royal would later say he was aiming for the ribs. Instead, the shot shattered Cleeland's eye socket and nearly cost him his eye, which now provides him only with partial vision. He also suffered a badly broken nose.


It was just as bad for other players. Jeff Danish crashed through a glass window at the end of the gantlet and nearly fell three stories. Chris Naeole was on crutches, but was forced to go through anyway. Kyle Turley, who seriously injured his kneecap during his run, remembers that it was basically mandatory:

"The guys who chose not to participate and locked themselves in their room, got buckets of water thrown under their doors. The water didn't come from the sink, but from toilets, with urine. Guys that decided not to show up, their belongings were trashed, pissed on, their beds, all their clothes."

(It's worth noting that Mike Ditka, who said Sunday, "When this would happen in my time, you take the bully and you kick his butt," is probably a liar. He was the head coach of the Saints from 1997-1999.)

This wasn't by any means confined to the Saints. But Cleeland's eye was so damaged he was forced to sit out the next preseason game, and reporters spotted his black eye and began poking around. The NFL quickly cracked down on violent hazing practices, both because of the fear of lawsuits—Danish sued six players and the team, and settled for an undisclosed amount—and terrible PR.


That, then, is one reason why Jonathan Martin is registering his grievances through the media rather than handling things in-house. Though it upset many of his teammates to have the Dolphins' dirty laundry aired out, Martin clearly believed the situation wouldn't have been handled if he had, as GM Jeff Ireland suggested, simply punched Incognito. Cleeland said it was unlikely that complaining to higher-ups would have effected any change either.

"What happens if you go to your coach and say, 'This guy's bothering me.' He's going to look at you and go, 'Are you crazy? You wuss. You're not tough. Get out of my office.' I'm not saying that's what would happen with Joe Philbin, because I don't know, but that's what's going to happen with 95 percent of coaches."


It's a perception deeply rooted in football, perhaps even more than in other sports, that seeking help isn't a masculine way of doing things. But that's not a universally shared sentiment. On Wednesday Terrelle Pryor briefly touched on the Miami situation. "Hats off to [Martin] for standing up and being a man," he said.

Cleeland's career would overlap briefly with Incognito's, on the 2005 Rams. Without claiming he knows what went on in Miami, Cleeland has strong memories of Incognito as a teammate:

"I'm not afraid to say that he was an immature, unrealistic scumbag," Cleeland said. "When it came down to it, he had no personality, he was a locker-room cancer, and he just wanted to fight everybody all the time. It was bizarre beyond belief."


[L.A. Times]