Why football is a sport worth saving

The fear of the pending ritual is more memorable than the pain inflicted during it. Thirty-five years ago, inside a high school football locker room, I was a 14-year-old stripped down to a jock strap preparing to crawl on hands and knees through a gantlet of upperclassmen fixing to strike my backside with the cleats and wet, coiled-up towels in their hands.

This was freshman orientation, minus the faculty lectures, and I can still picture the eager looks on the seniors' faces as they waited for the next man (or boy) up. It was a frightening scene for a 140-pounder about to be hazed by much bigger, older teammates, but at the other end of that procession waited a shower to cool your wounds and, more important, full acceptance into the club.

So I crawled through as quickly as I could, just like every other freshman who understood the payoff. No pain, no gain.

All these years later, I imagine Richie Incognito, varsity starter, would have spent months anticipating a day and ritual like that, salivating over his big chance to strike down on those he perceived to be inconsequential and weak. Incognito has been suspended by the Miami Dolphins for allegedly ordering his own "code red" on another offensive lineman, Jonathan Martin, who walked out on the team after Incognito had reportedly left him voice mails and sent him texts that were threatening and racially offensive.

Incognito isn't just a guy accused of being lowlife bully who abused someone for the hell of it; he's suddenly the ugly face of the NFL, and of a he-man culture that enables the intimidator and pressures the intimidated to either hit back or stay quiet and take it. This South Florida horror show is the last thing the NFL needed in the middle of its concussion crisis, with the "League of Denial" book and PBS documentary throwing new light on the hazards of the game and inspiring more mothers to send their children to other fields of play.

Despite its ever-soaring popularity -- or perhaps because of it -- football has been under siege like never before, or like it hasn't been since Teddy Roosevelt saved it by lobbying for rule changes in 1905, after 19 players died from injuries suffered in competition. This is a good thing, too, because football needs to be broken down and then built back up. The sport needs to do much more to help its battered former players, and to protect its current ones by embracing (rather than refuting) studies on brain damage, by continuing the crackdown on unnecessary hits, and by pushing and pushing for technological gains in equipment.

Football also needs to let the Incognito case tear down whatever remains of the Old School culture that presumably allowed an eight-year NFL veteran with a volatile history of inciting others to torment a thoughtful kid from Stanford who deserved so much better. Non-football fans who are barely familiar with Don Shula and Dan Marino, never mind Richie Incognito, are now following nonstop coverage of a story that should forever change the way coaches and administrators on all levels police their locker rooms.

If Dolphins coaches and executives truly didn't know what was going on with Incognito and Martin, and didn't hear about it through any of the countless rumor mills churning through your average NFL building, then there is a dangerous disconnect there between employers and employees. And if they did suspect at least some of what Martin was enduring, shame on them for doing nothing about it.

From the youth leagues on up through the pros, football coaches must start cutting players, even their most talented ones, who verbally or physically abuse any teammate. Coaches must make sure no player is ever again made to feel like Jonathan Martin did -- as a victim who feared retribution from Incognito, and who feared being ostracized by teammates, if he "ratted" on the Dolphin who preyed on him like a shark.

Hazing has to go the way of helmet-to-helmet hits, too. No more taping rookies to goalposts, or dunking mouthy newbies in ice-cold tubs, or forcing them to pick up dinner tabs in the tens of thousands of dollars. No more anything, really, because if you allow a Richie Incognito to force a rookie to buy him doughnuts every Wednesday morning, or to sing a Barry Manilow song in a talent show to break up the grind of training camp, you're only emboldening the alleged bully and racist within.

"There's some things that have happened in football for a long, long time," Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "Rookies singing at dinner, rookies carrying shoulder pads, rookies buying fried chicken as you go to the airplane, all that stuff. That's been around forever and that's part of the process, and part of what this league has been about for a long, long time."

Those days are over, Coach, if only because Richie Incognito ruined it for all the innocents who merely wanted rookies to carry their bags for the sake of team camaraderie. America's noble anti-bullying campaign now focuses on an NFL player, and rightfully so. It's open season again on the sport of football, which could surely use some voice, any voice, of public support.

So here goes: I played six of my seven years of organized football, from junior high through a season of Division III college ball, in Richie Incognito's hometown of Englewood, N.J., and I wouldn't trade an hour of it -- outside of that hazing incident -- for just about anything. Football teaches you discipline, perseverance and the importance of the team over the individual. It teaches you to do things you don't want to do, for the sake of a cause bigger than your own.

My articles of football faith? Even as a decidedly average player, I think football shaped my life more than any learning experience outside of my Roman Catholic schooling. I think football made it harder to ever quit on a marriage, or a mortgage, or a trying day at the office. I think if I was granted one more day to relive as a teenager, I'd ask for my old seat back on a winning bus rolling back into Englewood and St. Cecilia High School, which once gave a coach named Vince Lombardi his start.

I do actually believe football builds character. I still see my eighth-grade coach showing up on my front porch, on an afternoon I figured I'd skip practice, forcing me to tell him face-to-face that I was fine with letting down my teammates (I suited up right away). I still hear my eighth-grade quarterback, African Grant, who would go on to play a handful of games as a defensive back with these same Miami Dolphins, rightfully reprimand me for missing a block and getting him hit (I didn't miss a block the rest of the day).

In the real world, with a family to feed and protect, you're not really allowed to miss a block. So beyond the urgent need to eliminate the bullying and hazing, and to adopt more safety reforms, there's a lot of good stuff to be said about the game.

Football is worth saving. Now all we need are a few more Teddy Roosevelts to save it.