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Barber: Is Raiders' Richie Incognito really a changed man?

ALAMEDA - As it turns out, HBO wasn't done with the Raiders.

After invading the team's training camp in Napa for the summer series “Hard Knocks,” the subscription network revisited the Raiders on Tuesday night, on “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel.” One of the segments of the episode focused on guard Richie Incognito, who made his 2019 debut at Minnesota last Sunday.

The baggage that Incognito brought to Oakland would exceed the capacity of this sports section. If you aren't familiar with his story, google “Incognito expelled fights suspension bullying racism Pro Bowl arrest gym funeral home threats guns” and be prepared to travel down some unpleasant rabbit holes.

Suffice to say that the 36-year-old lineman is currently the NFL's most notorious player, and that he might never have taken the field again if the Raiders and their risk-inclined head coach, Jon Gruden, hadn't given him a final chance to play football below the radar.

The “Real Sports” episode didn't offer a ton of new information. But it provided vivid detail from an incident in May of 2018, when an agitated Incognito threw tennis balls and weights at someone outside a Boca Raton gym; police wound up subjecting him to an involuntary evaluation at a mental hospital.

The show also presented Incognito in his own words - those captured by a police camera as he sat in the back seat of a police car following that detention and rambled semi-coherently about playing in the NFL, and those from a recent sit-down with HBO reporter Bernie Goldberg.

Thursday, when practice was over and Raiders players began arriving at their lockers, I spoke to Incognito. He said he had not watched the segment of “Real Sports,” but that he had sat with Goldberg for three hours, and had found the experience “cathartic.”

“To be honest, it was a difficult convo, you know? It was tough,” Incognito told me. “And you know, I just left there knowing that I kept my cool and answered the questions to the best of my ability and I didn't shy away from anything. But yeah, it was definitely difficult sitting through all those tough questions.”

My chat with Incognito mirrored Goldberg's, as well as the handful of media sessions the player had handled since signing with the Raiders on May 28. He was lucid, forthright and, by all appearances, self-aware.

When I asked Incognito if he believes he is in a better place than the one he had inhabited over much of the previous couple years, he said, “Absolutely. For sure. Yeah. Much better place mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally.”

And when I asked him whether he was hoping to rehabilitate his image in the eyes of NFL fans and the wider world, he said, “You know, I do care about it, but it's something that I realize I can't control. … And I'm hoping I can overcome some of that crazy stuff, you know what I mean? Like, ‘Hey, look. He came back, he's good, he's on a good path. You know, he had a couple good years of good ball left in him.'”

Almost everything about Incognito's prior behavior, on and off the field, is repulsive. But it's hard to damn someone when you stand two feet from him and lob personal questions, and he answers them calmly and openly.

In fact, Incognito's statements since he became a Raider have made me hopeful. Hopeful that he has improved his mental state. Hopeful that he has found a way to subdue whatever demons caused him to harass teammate Jonathan Martin in an endless variety of vile ways, to do the things that encouraged NFL players to vote him the dirtiest player in the league in a 2009 Sporting News poll, and to threaten mortuary employees when they refused to cut off his father's head for research purposes in August of 2018.

I believe in the redemption of people who are willing to put in the work. And I know that good mental health counseling, possibly combined with meds, can lead to dramatic changes in behavior.

Then I watched “Real Sports,” and I came away worried about Richie Incognito, the effect he might have on the Raiders locker room and, much more important, whether he has undertaken a path to true change.

A word that has been tossed around since Incognito joined the Raiders is “accountability.” Sure, he may have committed any number of offenses in the past, but he is taking the first step to recovery by acknowledging his own responsibility. “Real Sports” cast all of that into question as Incognito repeatedly justified, downplayed and dissembled.

Take, for example, the racial component of Incognito's bullying. One of the ways he tormented Martin, a vulnerable man with mental health issues of his own, was by making fun of his ethnicity. Incognito explained to HBO that the Dolphins had asked him to toughen up Martin, casting his language as a classic case of “locker room talk.”

“Sometimes you say the worst things to the people closest to you,” Incognito said on the show. “But I definitely don't feel like that makes me a racist person.”

OK, but what about the text messages uncovered in the subsequent investigation funded by the NFL and headed by Ted Wells, in which Incognito told a white teammate that a specific gun scope was “perfect for shooting black people”? How about the manner in which Incognito and fellow Dolphins Mike Pouncey and John Jerry harassed an Asian-American assistant trainer, such as wearing Japanese headbands and “playfully” threatening to hurt him on December 7, 2012 - Pearl Harbor Day? Did the team ask Incognito to toughen up a lower-tier trainer?

Take, as a further example, Incognito's recounting of the disturbance at the funeral home in Scottsdale, Arizona. Employees told police the player had threatened to go to his truck for a weapon while mimicking a gun in his hand. (Authorities confiscated two Glock pistols, three rifles and a silencer from the truck.) Incognito agreed that he told workers he'd be right back from the parking lot, but said, “My intention was to go to the vehicle and grab my father's medical records to come in and show them.”

You buying that?

And here's something else Incognito told HBO while describing his aggressive actions at the Florida gym: “I had not been taking care of myself for so long. You're talking lack of sleep, not eating, marijuana - drinking, heavily … Days and days and weeks and weeks on end, and that is the … product you get. You get a highly paranoid, very large individual talking a bunch of nonsense.”

I don't mean to discount the effects of drugs, poor eating habits or lack of sleep on the human mind. But Incognito seems to present them as the full explanation of his erratic behavior. Thursday, I asked him whether he'll remain stable if he can eliminate or moderate the alcohol and weed - or whether there isn't some underlying problem driving him to self-destruction.

“No,” he said. “No, just taking care of myself. You know, I just put myself first. And making sure I stay away from some bad habits. And just check the boxes, do all the basics - you know, eat, sleep. Check in with people, be accountable.”

There's that word again. Honestly, I'll be thrilled if Incognito's days with the Raiders come and go without incident. But I'm left with the impression of a ticking time bomb.

Part of the problem is that the Raiders can really use the talents of a four-time Pro Bowl guard. He was a bright spot in the team's loss to the Vikings, despite not having played a football game in nearly two years. He immediately upgraded Oakland's offensive line.

“There was concern maybe about wear and tear or the age factor, but he's come back and looks just as strong as he did in his Pro Bowl years,” offensive coordinator Greg Olson said.

That gives the Raiders incentive to keep Incognito on the payroll. I just hope their evaluation of the player doesn't encourage them to turn a blind eye to his needs as a person.

To me, the most poignant slice of the “Real Sports” segment was dash-cam footage of Incognito in the back of the squad car, strapped in, hands cuffed behind his back, sweating profusely and speaking to no one in particular in a stream of consciousness.

“My heart fell out of the game last year,” he says. “I don't want to go anymore. I don't want to have to go to Buffalo. I don't want to have to go to St. Louis. I don't want to have to come here. I played for a long time, I have all my money. I have all my (bleeping) money and I don't want to (bleeping) play. They want to bring me to Seattle, they want to bring me to DC, they want to bring me to Minnesota. I (bleeping) talked to all these teams. I don't want to (bleeping) go!”

Incognito is weeping by now. And then, in a flash, his demeanor flips. The sadness is gone from his voice, his face is composed again and he says, “All right, I'll go.”

Whatever you might say about his grip on reality, the man in the back of that police car had a firm sense of his own psychic pain. And then, almost reflexively, he remembered who he was - a football player with an obligation to his violent profession.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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