12/30/2013 03:39 pm ET Updated Mar 01, 2014

Men and Mission: A Lesson From the Incognito Affair

The much-debated scandal of Miami Dolphins' lineman Ritchie Incognito viciously bullying his teammate has finally been removed from the playing field. Recently, the team announced Incognito won't play again this season, but will be paid.

It is unfortunate the Dolphins took so long to make this decision. It is just as troubling that an independent investigation by the NFL isn't expected to be finished until next year. These delays have given rise to a "will he play/won't he play" drama that has shoved the story's moral center almost completely out of view. Yet that moral core contains lessons that are vital for our times and vital, particularly, for this generation of men.

First, the facts. During the 2012 season, the Miami Dolphins discovered they had a problem. Jonathan Martin, their rookie offensive guard, was proving "soft." Running backs were weary of suffering for Martin's missed blocks. To make a better man of Martin, team leaders turned to Richie Incognito, a star lineman described even by friends as "crazy."

In search of a fiercer Martin, Incognito might have used language from the great speeches of football history. He might have quoted Bear Bryant or Knute Rockne or Vince Lombardi. Instead, he chose language of a lesser sort.

In a single voicemail, Incognito told Martin "Hey, whassup you half-n....r piece of sh..? ... (I want to) sh.. in your f.....g mouth. ... (I'm going to) slap your real mother across the face. I'll kill you." This was the tone of hundreds of texts and emails that passed between the two men. Finally, claiming that the strain was too much and that he feared for the safety of his family, Martin left the Dolphins and made Incognito's bullying ways public.

Much finger pointing and posturing followed. Lawyers threatened. The NFL investigated. Americans were left to wonder if this was typical of the culture that underlay the whole of professional football.

But there was more. Not long after these revelations, some Dolphins' players stepped up -- to defend Incognito! This is the way of life in the locker room, they affirmed. The words don't mean to us what they mean to you.

Then, several days before resigning, Jonathan Martin sent Incognito a text that read, "I will murder your whole f.....g family." The words were accompanied by a photo of a smiling dog. It was a joke, both men insisted. This is the way we express friendship.

It has all become known as "The Incognito Scandal" and seldom has a similar disgrace been better named. It is a scandal with no face, with no single villain, no one person to blame. This is because it is the scandal of a scandalous team culture and perhaps of a spreading cancer in society as a whole.

Throughout history, men have readily understood that their fate was intertwined with the character and inspiration of other men. Only a fool would have systematically disparaged or disillusioned a man whose skills he needed -- in battle, in exploring the wilderness, in simply assuring a civil society or, of course, in athletic contests. The demands of a corporate destiny made discouraging other men an act of folly, sometimes even a crime.

In the ancient world, commanders routinely charged their armies to send the fearful home. The concern was that the "cowardly" would spread their dread and discourage the entire force. Better to fight with a smaller, devoted corps than with a larger number of uncertain men.

Words mattered. Words painted pictures in the mind. Words imparted spirit. Words, men understood, were often the very margin of victory itself.

True, there has always been harsh, sometimes crude insider sparring among comrades. There have always been initiation rites and the need to pound the new man into form. Yet usually this was about fashioning a noble, unified force -- an espirit de corps, the kind of prized band of brothers for which and with which a man would give his all.

The Incognito scandal reveals that what can pass for motivational speech today is often nasty, racist and wounding.

There is a grander tradition among men, and perhaps this is a good time of year and a good time in our nation's troubled history for us to reach for that more noble part of our heritage.