Eagles' Ertz: Bullied ex-teammate did the right thing

Posted: November 07, 2013

Down in Miami, the latest flash-point story for the NFL has developed into a national debate about hazing and the best way to handle an abusive bully. But all Zach Ertz sees in this sad situation is a friend and former teammate who did the right thing.

Ertz, a rookie tight end for the Eagles, played alongside Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin for three years at Stanford. The Dolphins have suspended another lineman, Richie Incognito, for allegedly terrorizing Martin, leaving voice mails and sending text messages that threatened Martin's life, using racially charged language, going well beyond the Animal House-style high jinks that are common to NFL culture. Martin has since taken a leave of absence from the team, and to Ertz, Martin won the confrontation with Incognito simply by walking away.

"That's something you never want to be in, when something gets that far out of line," Ertz said after the Eagles practiced Tuesday. "But I think he had to do what he had to do. I respect him for how he's handled the situation."

As egregious as Incognito's alleged behavior was, in the warped world of NFL values the bigger problem for the Dolphins - and for any franchise that has to deal with similar incidents - is that they hurt their own chances of winning games. Here was a player tearing down a teammate, leaving the Dolphins a lesser team, and that's a far greater offense than threatening and demeaning a fellow human being or even committing a crime. The Eagles' recent history demonstrates this truth.

When NFL teams and players talk about "character" or "being a good teammate," what they're really talking about is the manner in which a player attends to his football-related responsibilities. Nothing more.

It's why, despite the 18 months Michael Vick served in jail on felony dogfighting charges, his presence never promised to cause the same friction for the Eagles that Terrell Owens caused years ago, when he called quarterback Donovan McNabb a "company man," painting McNabb as an Uncle Tom and upsetting the esprit de corps of the locker room.

It's why wide receiver Riley Cooper, after his use of a racial slur was captured on video earlier this year, could have ended his own career yet still remains a key contributor to the Eagles offense. He has stayed quiet. He has played hard and, at times, very well. He's helping the team win, so the incident's significance apparently has receded with time.

It's why cornerback Cary Williams could chuckle about the hazing he experienced as a rookie in 2008 with the Tennessee Titans, pointing out the camaraderie that it cultivated between him and the Titans' veteran players.

"It was nothing," he said. "You had to buy snacks. You had to pay for little dinners, maybe buy a couple of CDs for particular guys. It was nothing really that serious or had me feeling like I wanted to get away from the place."

The worst of it, Williams said, was when someone threw his pair of Air Jordan sneakers into the cold tub. "Only found one of those shoes," he said. "I'm still looking for it." And if that's as bad as it got for him, no wonder he's laughing about it now. There is something to be said for having a callow kid earn the respect of his elder teammates - provided the rite of passage is kept in the proper perspective, provided it's not doing real damage, provided it's not the sadism Incognito has allegedly shown.

So far under coach Chip Kelly, the Eagles - with the exception of the Cooper incident - have met the criteria for an NFL team with character. It was generally true over Andy Reid's 14-year tenure as head coach, too. Their players aren't angels, but they show up on time. They do their work. They frown on those who raise a fuss.

Both Ertz and Williams said that there's been no hazing of any Eagles rookies this season, that the veterans aren't of the mind to treat any teammates that way. If that's true, then it's a small sliver of evidence that the violence and brutality inherent to football don't have to spill over into something so ugly off the field.

"Football is such a traditionalist sport," Ertz said. "Whatever happened in the past is usually going to continue. But the bullying has no place in any sport. That's the bottom line."

Has Ertz ever bullied or threatened anyone, at any level of football?

"Heck, no," he said as he left the field. "My mom would have killed me."


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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