In the NFL, it’s a fine line between mentor and bully

While people around the sports world see the suspended Richie Incognito as a bigoted bully, retired NFL offensive lineman Kyle Turley thinks it’s perfectly plausible that the Miami Dolphins guard was carrying out orders from his coaches to toughen up teammate Jonathan Martin.

Turley said he was given those enforcer responsibilities in college and the pros.

“I took on that leadership role,” Turley said. “The coaches gave me those reins.

“I’m sure in this situation — not to justify the rhetoric or terminology that Incognito used — but I understand if this was the role that was given to him. ... It’s absurd for the real world to accept this, and nobody should, but this is not the real world. This is football.”

Incognito is at the center of a league investigation into the Dolphins, and is accused of harassing and threatening fellow offensive lineman Martin, a second-year tackle who walked away from the team last week, with voice and text messages that included racial slurs. Incognito, a nine-year veteran with a history of being kicked off teams, is a member of the Dolphins’ leadership council.


“What Incognito has done on the line since he’s been in Miami is he’s proven himself to be worthy of that role,” said Turley, 38, who like Incognito was considered among the NFL’s dirtiest players during his 10-year career.

“The coaches apparently enlisted him to be the leader of that offensive line. ‘This is your line now. We need you to get these guys in shape and together.’ The culture is to direct players. They say, ‘You’re the leader. We need you. We’re coaches; we don’t play the game. These guys need to respect you. It’s your duty.’”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday appointed Ted Wells, a senior partner of the New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison to oversee an investigation of the Dolphins’ workplace conditions. The findings will be made public once the case is completed, the league said.

Also on Wednesday, in a twist that runs counter to the notion that Incognito is the classic bully, several Miami players voiced their support for him.

“I know both of those guys personally,” receiver Mike Wallace said. “I like both of them. I love Richie. I think he’s a great guy. I don’t think he was out of hand. I have a lot of respect for Richie. I wish he was here.”

Making the situation even more confounding, quarterback Ryan Tannehill said he believed Incognito and Martin were “best friends.”

“I think if you had asked Jon Martin a week before who his best friend on the team was, he would have said Richie Incognito,” Tannehill said. “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. When we would hang out off the field, outside football, who was together? Richie and Jon. I’m not in those guys’ shoes, I can’t explain what’s going on.”

Turley, a two-time All-Pro tackle, was a first-round pick by New Orleans in 1998 and spent five seasons with the Saints before moving on to St. Louis and Kansas City. Incognito was drafted by the Rams in 2005, a year after Turley left for the Chiefs. They know each other from working out together in Arizona one off-season.

While clarifying that he doesn’t endorse threats or the racially charged language Incognito is alleged to have used, Turley said it is common for older veterans to apply maximum pressure to younger ones, particularly if younger players have missed workouts or have shown signs of weakness. Martin reportedly skipped a voluntary workout in the spring.

“Positive motivation in the NFL could in the real world be considered bullying,” Turley said. “Positive motivation is, ‘Get the … up!’ You’re like brothers. You share a locker room, you shower together, you eat together, you do all these things. And when you say, just like I would to my little brother in a pickup basketball game, ‘You’re dragging, man! Pick it the … up! Suck it up!’ Because you feel like you know this guy. You feel like it’s your brother, and you’ve got to make that connection so that you can come together.”

Turley said the situation in Miami is somewhat reminiscent of one he had at San Diego State when he was the leader of the offensive line. At the time, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila was a younger, up-and-coming defensive lineman.

“He was a timid kid, and I pushed him very hard,” Turley said. “I didn’t cross the line. It was one thing when we were training, and another when we were off the field. It’s like we were done when we punched the clock.”

Gbaja-Biamila, later a star pass rusher with Green Bay, recalled that Turley had toughened him up.

“When it comes to the physical part going head to head, I most definitely became a better player,” he said. “The moment I beat him for the first time, I thought, ‘Man, if I can hold my own against Kyle Turley, there’s no one that can stop me.’”

Turley said he has spoken to people with knowledge of the situation in Miami — including a brief exchange with Incognito using direct messages on Twitter — and believes that Incognito’s gruff approach coupled with Martin’s fragile psyche created “a recipe for disaster.”

“What everybody else in the locker room considers just football, obviously [Martin] was completely the opposite and very sensitive to what was going on and didn’t buy into that,” Turley said. “When you’ve got a guy like Richie, who’s been enlisted as your leader to motivate these guys, to get them in shape, get them in check, personally, I feel like the Dolphins kind of set them up.

“They set Jonathan Martin up for failure, and they set Richie Incognito up for failure.”

Twitter: @LATimesfarmer