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American Press sports reporter Albert Burford.<br>

American Press sports reporter Albert Burford.

Burford Column: Learn where the line is, don’t cross it

Last Modified: Thursday, November 07, 2013 2:55 PM

By Albert Burford / American Press

If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.

That’s the attitude many people have taken in response to Jonathan Martin leaving the Miami Dolphins after being harassed by teammates. One fellow Dolphins offensive lineman, Richie Incognito, allegedly made numerous threats against Martin and used racial slurs when addressing the second-year Stanford product.

When the insults reached a boiling point, Martin walked out of the Miami training facility and headed to California to get counseling.

It’s another example of how professional athletes can be aggressive, mean and brutish, especially in football. We like them that way on the field. But when it becomes a personal matter of constant harassment, it’s gone too far.

At many levels throughout his career, Incognito has been allowed to continue his behavior with slaps on the wrist because in the end, it’s about talent, and he’s got that.

I don’t want to blame his coaches for the way he’s behaving — it’s clear Incognito has personal issues. But there was a time in Incognito’s formative years when some mentor had the opportunity to step in and show him the difference between locker room tough talk and conduct detrimental to the team. Because, whether you think Incognito went too far or not, at the end of the day, Miami is without two of its starting offensive linemen thanks to Incognito’s actions.

Incognito’s high school coach Jim Ewan told the Palm Beach Post, “(Incognito) had a tendency to (tick) people off — you don’t need to go that hard. But if I could get 11 kids to go like that all the time, how good could we be as a team?”

That willingness to knowingly sacrifice good conduct for the desire for results is part of what made this incident possible.

Apparently professional coaches didn’t know they had to explain to Incognito where the metaphorical line is drawn. They told Incognito to “toughen” Martin up after he missed some voluntary offseason workouts, according to reports. To Incognito, this meant threatening to harm Martin’s family members, among other things.

Almost anybody who has played sports on a team knows how the hierarchy works. The new guys, freshmen, rookies, whatever, fill up the water bottles for the veterans. They pick up after practice and deal with the annoying things older players have already been through.

But when hazing becomes something that can make someone fear for the safety of himself or his family, the line has been crossed.

Young athletes need to understand where that line is so they can identify if it has been crossed.

High school coaches can only be held accountable for so much, but they can have a profound influence on young people. With that influence they can steer people away from the type of behavior Incognito allegedly displayed toward a teammate.

This isn’t to say football needs to be overhauled in an effort to make everyone happy. A couple weeks ago, a parent of a high school football player on the wrong side of a 91-0 filed a bullying report with the school district. That was ridiculous.

That aggression we love to see on the field shouldn’t move to the voice mailbox or text message inbox of a teammate, it should be left on the field.

Hopefully the high school game can help young players find a middle road between antagonistic behavior and yelling “Bully!” after a blowout loss. They need to provide a clear road to acting professionally for future adults, athletes or not.

• • •

Albert Burford covers high school sports for the American Press. Email him at aburford@americanpress.com

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