By Larry Fine
(Reuters) - From NFL clubhouses to office water coolers, the case of alleged bullying, harassment and workplace abuse involving two Miami Dolphins players has generated a major buzz in America's most popular sport.
Miami's 23-year-old tackle Jonathan Martin left the team last week on a leave of absence, emotionally distraught by his treatment, and linemate Richie Incognito has been suspended indefinitely by the Dolphins.
The National Football League has launched what it promised to be a comprehensive probe into the affair, which has shone a light on the hazing of young players, and Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said he welcomed the investigation.
In the Dolphins' case, the hazing turned extreme, rising from doing the menial bidding of veterans, to paying for expensive dinners and subsidizing expensive trips, to being subjected to racially charged, threatening messages sent via text and voice mail.
Facing a dispute between two players, the NFL Players Association issued a guarded statement.
"We expect that the NFL and its clubs create a safe and professional workplace for all players...
"As the representative organization of all players, the NFLPA will insist on a fair investigation for all involved."
Players spoke out on all sides of the issue.
"He's an intense guy," Miami wide receiver Mike Wallace said about Incognito. "Everybody knows that. I think he was just being Richie. I love playing with Richie. I wish he was here right now."
Incognito, who had a history of disciplinary problems and was named dirtiest player in the NFL by The Sporting News in 2009 and second-dirtiest in its 2012 poll, also had his detractors.
"I've had a few incidents with that guy, I've seen other players have incidents with that guy, I've seen everything he has tried to do to hurt guys," Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett told reporters.
"I'm just glad the NFL and the Miami Dolphins are taking action. I don't have any respect for the guy."
New York Giants defensive back Antrel Rolle told WFAN radio that it sounded like Incognito had gone too far, before adding, "I think the other guy (Martin) is just as much to blame because he's allowed this to happen."
Incognito, a Pro Bowl guard last season and a member of the Dolphins' player-elected leadership council, has had a troubled past going back to the University of Nebraska.
He was suspended as a sophomore for throwing punches at a rival player and was also charged with assault for a fight at a party.
A third-round pick of the St. Louis Rams in 2005, Incognito was released by the Rams during the 2009 season after drawing two personal foul penalties for head-butting opponents after the whistle.
After signing with Miami in March 2010, he received a trespassing warning by police after a fight with a security guard outside a night club.
"None of it shocks me," said Giants kicker Josh Brown, a teammate of Incognito at Nebraska and with the Rams, who said he still considers Incognito a friend.
"Richie seems to be a person with a tortured soul. He's had these issues for quite awhile and it's sad."
Martin, by contrast, is soft-spoken, introverted and from an academic background. A second-round draft pick by Miami in 2012 out of Stanford University, he started all 16 games last season and all seven he played in this year.
Martin's parents are both Harvard graduates, his father the associate dean of the College of Business Administration and Public Policy at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and mother, an assistant general counsel for Toyota.
Stanford coach David Shaw, who was offensive coordinator during Martin's three seasons with the Cardinal, said the university was proud of him.
"As more comes out, we're finding out this is not just Jon being oversensitive, this is Jonathan being the first person to speak out about what's been going on," Shaw told reporters.
Paul Millus, an expert in workplace and discrimination law for the New York firm of Meyer, Suozzi, English and Klein, said the case could end up in court.
"He could certainly take the player involved to court, and if the team were put on notice and did not take any action it would be difficult for them to simply walk away as well," Millus told Reuters in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
"If they were put on notice that an employee in the workplace is essentially verbally assaulting another, harassing another, inflicting emotional distress on another and they do nothing about it, there's a liability curve for them as well."
The Dolphins' clubhouse, meanwhile, seemed to be standing behind Incognito, according to Dan Le Batard, a Miami Herald columnist and ESPN radio and TV host.
"They've been supporting Incognito and it's troubling and it speaks to the culture of football because the other guy is viewed as a quitter. The other guy, Jonathan Martin, is viewed as weak," Le Batard said on ESPN radio on Tuesday.
"Right now if I put in the Dolphins locker room a poll and said, 'who would you welcome back, the guy who's being perceived as a racist bully, or the guy who is perceived as weak', almost to a man I think they'd take Incognito back."
(Editing by Gene Cherry)