PITTSBURGH — The system broke down, Jerome Bettis said.
There was a failure to communicate.
"It really let that kid down," Bettis said.
By now, you know the sad story of Jonathan Martin, the former Miami Dolphins offensive tackle who was bullied out of the locker room by fellow lineman Richie Incognito and two other teammates. It seemed right to call Bettis for his thoughts. He was the Steelers' best leader since Joe Greene.
"That would have never happened in our locker room," Bettis said.
Bettis blamed the Dolphins' mess on a lack of veteran leadership and said the situation should be instructive for all NFL clubs. "Teams always are looking to cut 8-to-10-year veterans and keep younger, cheaper guys. You see the repercussions when you do. You have to have the right older players to set the tone for the young guys and show them how to be pros. If you don't, you have chaos."
According to an NFL-commissioned investigation, Martin faced relentless homophobic, racial and sexual slurs from Incognito and linemen John Jerry and Mike Pouncey. There was liberal use of the n-word. Many of the worst sexual taunts were directed at Martin's mother and sister.
"You have to give some. You have to thicken a guy's skin a little bit," Bettis said, trying to explain the NFL locker-room culture. "People always are joking, 'Your mother looked good the other day.' Or, 'Introduce me to your sister.' No one takes that seriously. But there has to be perimeters in place and you can't cross them. If you do cross them, everything is taken more seriously. 'Are they really talking about my mom?' With Martin, it got to the point of harassment."
Bettis said he was stunned to hear the racial slurs. Incognito even talked about "shooting black people."
"I can't even speak to that," Bettis said. "That was always off limits with us. That (n-word) was never used even playfully . . .
"That's what I mean, the system broke down."
Bettis said he didn't think Incognito and the others intentionally tried to break Martin and drive him off their team. The NFL's report confirmed as much.
"As veteran players, it's your job to try (to) help the young guys develop," Bettis said. "I'm sure they didn't consider themselves being divisive. They thought they were helping the kid by toughening him up. They just went too far. That's what's disappointing."
Bettis said he would have stepped in "immediately" if he heard of such abuse in the Steelers locker room.
"You cut it off swiftly and put an end to it. 'Hey! Whoa! Whoa! That's way out of bounds.' Apparently, there was no one in that locker room to stop it."
Bettis' impact on his Steelers teammates was profound. We saw that the day after they lost to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship after the 2004 season when wide receiver Hines Ward wept publicly because he felt the team let Bettis down. We saw it again later that summer when Ward ended a contract holdout and reported to training camp because "Jerome told me to come in." We saw it one more time when the other players sent Bettis out on the field alone during the pregame introductions before Super Bowl XL in Detroit, his hometown. "I wanted the cameras to shine on Jerome alone," teammate Joey Porter said.
It was the greatest individual tribute I've seen in sports.
Bettis described his role as Steelers leader as "an intermediary" between the players and coach Bill Cowher.
"It worked both ways. If (Cowher) had an issue, he would come to me and I'd take it back to the team. If we had a bad practice, he'd tell me about it and I'd tell the guys, 'If we don't this and this, then this is going to happen.' At the same time, when we needed printers and a fax machine and business stuff in the players' room, I took it upstairs and we had it the next week."
As for more serious matters?
"You ask yourself, 'Can I step in and shut it down?'" Bettis said. "If not, you take it upstairs. You do what you have to do for the team. Fortunately, there was never a situation I couldn't handle."
Bettis talked of a season when Steelers rookies "weren't doing the right things." He told of running back Amos Zereoue "bucking the system" and the subsequent chat they had.
"It didn't do a lot of good," Bettis said. "Then one day, I had to dunk his street clothes in the whirlpool. You laugh, but he understood. He got in line after that. Young players have to understand there's a hierarchy in the locker room. At the same time, the veterans have to make sure everyone is on the same page."
Despite the homophobic evidence from the Dolphins' locker room, Bettis said he believes the NFL is ready for an openly gay player. That belief will be tested when Missouri defensive end Michael Sam is drafted in May. Sam announced earlier this month he is gay.
"I think he'll be just fine," Bettis said. "He was right to speak on it early, before the draft. He could end up with any team so they all have to be prepared and will be more tolerant. That won't just help him. It will help those that come after him."
Bettis said he is curious to see what measures NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the team owners put into place after the Martin situation. "They can institute anything they want, but I don't know how effective it will be. What league official is in the locker room? Coaches have their own locker room. How is the league going to police the locker rooms?"
Only one group can do that, Bettis said.
"Good veteran leaders. Teams should remember that when they're putting their roster together."
The Steelers were lucky.
They had great leadership from Bettis.
That's just one more reason - along with his 13,662 rushing yards and 91 touchdowns - that Bettis should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.