Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Hazing and Psychopathy - The Richie Incognito Story

Psychopath (noun) – a person with a psychopathic personality, which manifests as amoral and antisocial behavior, lack of ability to love or establish meaningful personal relationships, extreme egocentricity, and failure to learn from experience

I have watched with great interest as the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito hazing and harassment scandal has unfolded over the last several days.  Hazing in professional sports is nothing new – every year, there are numerous news reports making light of rookie hazing.  From silly haircuts to locker room pranks, hazing in the NFL is on public display.

But the Martin/Incognito story is different – the behavior being reported in Miami goes beyond rookie hazing and into the realm of workplace harassment.  One player has left the team, and the alleged perpetrator has been indefinitely suspended.

The person at the center of this story, Richie Incognito, is a character worthy of examination.  His history of abuse has been well-documented. After being suspended twice at the University of Nebraska, he was eventually dismissed from the team.  He transferred to the University of Oregon, but was booted from the team before ever playing a game.  He was eventually drafted in the third round by the St. Louis Rams.  He was let go by the Rams after head-butting two players in 2009, landed with the Buffalo Bills, was let go after three games, and landed in Miami.  He has led the league in personal fouls, penalties, and in 2009 was voted by his peers as the “Dirtiest Player in the NFL.”  Some resume’.

I’m no psychologist, but I have spent a significant amount of time in the last few years studying the psychological elements of hazing.  Most of what I read, write and talk about deals with the group dynamics of hazing – how individuals disengage from their moral selves and engage in behavior that they think benefits the group, and how group dynamics encourage this sort of behavior.  But there is no theory in social psychology to explain Richie Incognito’s behavior.  Nothing he is alleged to have done could be described as having any benefit to any individual or to the Miami Dolphins as an organization.  Taking the facts of the current case into consideration with his long history of violence, anti-social behavior and egotism, I cannot escape the thought that Richie Incognito must be a psychopath.

All of the warning signs are there. Violent behavior? Check. Huge ego? Check (check out his twitter page if you don’t believe me).  Anti-social? Check. Failure to learn from experience? Check. Lack of ability to love or establish meaningful relationships? Not a lot of friends or loved ones coming to his defense right now, are there?  You get the idea.

Here’s the problem with psychopaths – they are everywhere. They could be anyone.  They are hiding in plain sight. Some have suggested that “successful psychopaths” may attain prominent positions in society, and are well-represented in fields like business and politics. In fact, the odds are pretty good that you have a sociopath in your life, maybe one in your organization.  If you are in a fraternity, there is a very high chance that you have a psychopath in your chapter.

You probably know who it is after only a second of thought.  A lot of people may participate in hazing, feeling it a needed “rite of passage,” but the psychopath is the guy who actually seems to enjoy abusing the pledges. His hazing isn’t limited to fun, games and pranks – he is the guy who screams at pledges, throws things, curses, and does everything in his power to make their lives miserable.  He is the guy that can be funny at times, and people seem to tolerate him, some people may even like him and think he’s a great guy, but he doesn’t actually have close friends.  He may occasionally hook up with girls, but he has never been in an intimate and loving relationship.  You've been waiting since his freshman year for him to “grow out of it,” but he doesn’t seem to be changing his behavior. In fact, it may have become worse. Chances are, you have your very own Richie Incognito in your chapter.  It might be that you have more than one.

The Miami Dolphins are learning, in an embarrassing public spectacle, the lesson of what happens when you allow a psychopath to run amok in your organization. The extent to which team leadership knew of the specifics of Incognito’s abuse of other players remains to be seen, but they knew that he was a psychopath long before they offered him a job.  He was allowed to abuse rookies with little to no regard for any rules or consequences.  And now a player has suffered what appears to be an emotional breakdown. Some Miami Dolphin players are coming to Incognito’s defense, but their effort seems more of a shallow defense of the system rather than a heart-felt defense of the man.

What can we learn from the Dolphin's mistakes?

If you have a Richie Incognito in your chapter, I have one piece of very simple advice for you – get rid of him. By all means necessary.  If your chapter cannot muster the will to expel him, then ask your advisors or national volunteers for help. At the very least, get him placed on involuntary alumni status and get him away from your new members. If you allow a psychopath to have unfettered access to the new members of your fraternity, then you are playing with fire.  A college fraternity is one of the most dangerous environments in which a psychopath can live.  There, he runs the risk of not only hazing, but sexual violence, vandalism, and all manner of physical abuse and fighting. Keeping a Richie Incognito around in your organization is asking for trouble.

I suspect that the Richie Incognito story will be a watershed moment for the NFL. Their “head in the sand” approach to hazing has finally met its logical end. Someone has been hurt. An NFL locker room is a work place.  Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito were/are employees of a company. Workplace harassment in the form of hazing is still workplace harassment, and it is illegal. The hypocrisy of NFL brass, including coaches and owners, is on full display in justifying rookie hazing. Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin publicly denied any knowledge of rookie hazing, despite the fact that hazing in the Dolphin’s locker room was on national display in last year’s season of HBO’s Hard Knocks.  How’s that for keeping your head in the sand?  Football analysts on ESPN, who have frequently made light of rookie hazing, are now indignant.  Why? Because someone was finally hurt?  We all knew this was coming. So many people – NFL officials, owners, coaches, other players, analysts - have had an opportunity to keep this from happening, and all of them have ignored the problem. Now it is a problem that can no longer be ignored. The NFL must adopt a hazing policy, and it must do so immediately.

The NFL will act, and so should you. No more Richie Incognitos. It’s time to take a stand.