On Thursday, several teammates of Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito are defending the veteran. Incognito allegedly sent threatening and racially-charged voicemails to fellow offensive lineman Jonathan Martin. The controversy, along with concussion issues, are now raising questions about the NFL brand.
They're the biggest and arguably strongest of all professional athletes. And the need to be mentally tough is the price of admission to an exclusive club. But there's a line.
"You know when guys come into the league, when you are putting a wedge between players," said Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.
"You can't show that you are hurt, can't show any pain. So a guy who comes in the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, that's a problem. So that is what I mean by the culture of the NFL. And that is where we have to change," said Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
But in the wake of word that the NFL has appointed a top criminal attorney to investigate what happened in the Miami Dolphins locker room, some are questioning how the league moves forward with yet another massive problem. ESPN Radio's Tom Waddle caught passes for the Chicago Bears. He says the Incognito affair clearly lines of respect were crossed. But it seems likely the NFL will not pay a long term price.
"Let's face it. Baseball may be America's pastime, but football is America's passion. And as long as you can construct your fantasy football team on Sundays and you can gamble on football," Waddle said. "The passion is always going to be there."
And that willingness to look beyond is a symptom of America's "addiction to football" that one economist says lies at the heart of what's wrong.
"The NFL, like a lot of organizations, is willing to take a lot of attacks on its principles or behavior before it is willing to take an attack on its income. And these things threaten their income," said Professor Allen Sanderson, University of Chicago.
Players divided regarding Jonathan Martin of Dolphins
Martin let the situation fester for months before leaving the team last week. Martin's agent then complained to the Dolphins, who suspended guard Richie Incognito.
The NFL is investigating whether Incognito harassed or bullied Martin, and whether their teammates and the organization mishandled the matter.
But pro football is a macho world, and some players believe Martin should have responded more firmly.
"Is Incognito wrong? Absolutely. He's 100 percent wrong," New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle said. "No individual should have to go through that, especially in their workplace.
"But at the same time, Jonathan Martin is a 6-4, 320-pound man. I mean, at some point and time you need to stand your ground as an individual. Am I saying go attack, go fight him? No. I think we all understand we can stand our ground without anything being physical."
Dolphins players have robustly defended Incognito, long considered among the NFL's dirtiest players. He's now a notorious national villain, but teammates praise his leadership and loyalty.
They've been less passionate in their support of Martin, saying he and Incognito behaved like best friends.
"They did a lot of stuff together," tackle Tyson Clabo said. "So if he had a problem with the way he was treating him, he had a funny way of showing it."
Martin is with his family in California to undergo counseling for emotional issues.
A senior partner in a New York law firm was appointed by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to investigate possible misconduct and prepare a report. DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, said Thursday that he continues to be in touch with those involved.
"The NFLPA has taken steps to ensure that every one of our affected members is represented," Smith said in a statement. "It is our duty as a union to learn the full facts, protect the interests of players involved and hold management accountable to the highest standards of fairness and transparency."
Martin is the son of Harvard graduates, and his great grandfather graduated from the school in 1924. Martin attended Stanford, where he majored in the classics and protected Andrew Luck's blind side.
Martin was taken by the Dolphins in the second round of the 2012 draft. But while he has been a starter since the first game of his rookie season, he developed a reputation in the NFL for lacking toughness.
That impression might have been reinforced by the way he handled his issues with Incognito, current and former teammates acknowledge.
"A lot of people might look at Jonathan Martin and think that he's soft because he stepped away from the game, and say, 'Why don't you just fight him?'" said Seattle Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin, who played with Martin at Stanford. "Well, if you look at it with common sense and being logical, what options did Jonathan Martin have?
"He could fight Richie Incognito. He could go and tell on the players, which we know in the football locker room doesn't go over too well. Or he could remove himself from the situation and let the proper channels take care of itself. And I think he made the intelligent, smart choice without putting himself or Richie Incognito's physical abilities in danger."
Incognito's harassment of Martin included text messages that were racist and threatening, two people familiar with the situation have told The Associated Press. Incognito is white, while Martin is biracial.
Two other people familiar with the situation have said Martin talked of quitting football earlier in his pro career before leaving the Dolphins. One person said Martin considered giving up the sport because of the way he was being treated by other offensive linemen on the team. The person added that Martin now wants to continue his football career.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.