November 9, 2013 at 5:15 pm

Jerry Green

The NFL's culture of uncivilized behavior survives over the years

Bobby Layne sending a rookie out for pizza can't be compared to the transgressions for which Richie Incognito is accused. (The Detroit News)

Fifty years ago, literary giant George Plimpton stepped onto a chair in the dark, hallowed dining hall at the Cranbrook School, placed his right hand over his heart, and boomed -- “Ten thousand sons of Harvard, we want victory today.”

George was going through the NFL’s rookie ritual. He was researching material for what would evolve into his best-selling book, “Paper Lion.” And in his let’s-pretend manner, he was doing everything Lions rookies would be required to do during training camp.

The Lions -- and the other pro football clubs – called it hazing way back then. Every club hazed its rookies. It was a rite of initiation into pro football.

Pro football rookies, then and now, were considered the lowest of all creatures. They might arrive in camp with scrapbooks loaded with clippings and certifications that they had been All-Americans. They might have signed enormous contracts.

But they were still rookies – bottom-feeders in the minds of the old pros.

Every pro club forced its new players, the kids from the colleges, to endure the hazing. It created bonding, the veterans believed. It led to teamwork.

And quite often the treatment was cruel, considered barbaric in certain elements of society.

The rookies went along with it. They sang their school alma maters -- dear old Michigan State, or revered UCLA. Whatever. Words shouted with pride.

Not too often was Plimpton’s elitist Harvard song heard in NFL training camps. But George, as an imaginative creator of the make-believe, was striving for reality.

By then -- 1963, when I myself was being initiated into the intimate realm of pro football as a sports journalist -- Bobby Layne had gone, dispatched into exile, then retirement, with the Steelers.

But the tales lingered of what it was like with Bobby in training camp at Cranbrook. And still do in my mind.

Beyond propriety

The Lions trained at the elegant prep school in Bloomfield Hills back then. The players lived in the student dormitories. It was there the Lions conducted preseason training in 1957, the season of their last championship.

Every night Layne would summons a different rookie and send him downtown into Birmingham on a vital mission.

“Boy, you down there and get us a pizza,” Layne would drawl in his singular manner.

He’d look at the kid who was shaking in his sneakers.

“And boy, it betta be hot when you get back here.”

It was all quite tame back then.

Hazing rookies like that is tradition.

Except it’s now called bullying -- and lots and lots of prissy sports journalists are just weeping over the situation with the Miami Dolphins.

The stories of the cruelty and barbarism have popped up everywhere.

It seems a Dolphins veteran named Richie Incognito has harassed a young teammate named Jonathan Martin. The evidence quickly reached the public domain.

Incognito -- a wonderful name for a headline producing athlete -- abused and threatened Martin, according to all the stories that have gained national scope out of Miami.

Copies of voice mails and tapes of the incident surfaced and the natural hunger for sensationalism overwhelmed us. Those who have heard these tapes confirm that vilifying racist and vulgar remarks were made by Incognito to Martin.

What Incognito was quoted as saying to teammate Martin reached far beyond propriety.

This was not Bobby Layne sending a rookie from Iowa out to fetch a pizza pie. It was not George Plimpton becoming one of the real rooks and belting out the Harvard song in his sophisticated voice. This was not a rookie from Stanford lugging a veteran’s stinking, sweat-logged shoulder pads back from the practice field.

This was planned cruelty. And there have been some insights out of South Florida that Incognito was ordered to pick on Martin in order to toughen him up for football.

No compassion

Incognito and Martin had played together on the Dolphins’ offensive line.

A week ago Martin, feeling degraded, left the Dolphins. He walked out. Or ran away.

When the tapes and voice mails emerged, the Dolphins’ officialdom was horrified. The club suspended Incognito for an indefinite period.

Now Roger Goodell and his NFL are investigating. Lawyers are involved.

There are no niceties in football. It is an uncivilized sport that appeals to the primitive instincts of the multitudes.

And apparently also to the posh aristocratic types such as the late George Plimpton.

The Miami situation has turned into a serial melodrama.

Incognito is a football tough. He has an unsavory reputation rooted in his undisciplined years in college football at Nebraska. He became more infamous in the pros with the Rams, Bills and Dolphins. His career has been featured by numerous scrapes and suspensions.

I guess Incognito is not a guy you’d invite home for dinner.

Fellow players once voted him the NFL’s dirtiest player, in a Sporting News survey. And Miami journalists, from what I read, voted him the Dolphins’ most congenial, media-friendly player.

The contradiction, of course, figures.

There is no indication about how many more segments there will be of this onrushing story.

The most recent bits of leakage from the Dolphins’ locker room is that Martin is not getting very much sympathy from his teammates.

“If you asked Jonathan Martin who was his best friend on the field two weeks ago, he’d say Richie Incognito,” said quarterback Ryan Tannehill. “The first guy to stand up for Jonathan when anything went down on the field -- any kind of tussle -- Richie was the first guy there.”

There is no compassion in the NFL culture.

I think George Plimpton discovered that in 1963. The Lions players befriended him. The club allowed him to play quarterback, wearing uniform No. 0 in Honolulu blue and silver, in a public scrimmage. George got five plays.

The Lions’ defense -- Roger Brown, Wayne Walker and the others -- dumped George for losses on all five.

But the book was marvelous. Better than the movie.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column on Sundays at

More Jerry Green