Spoiler alert: this post is also about sports, but it ain’t happy. The Red Sox soaked up all my sunshine and rainbows; I’m going to hop from the neatly wrapped up MLB postseason to a serious, spreading mess in the NFL regular season. For those of you who aren’t football fans, before I dive in I’ll post a terrific, immaculately sourced breakdown so you can educate yourselves: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/06/richie-incognito-racist-dolphins-teammates_n_4227099.html
There’s recently been turmoil in the National Football League. Richie Incognito, a ten-year veteran who currently plays offensive guard for the Miami Dolphins, has been indefinitely suspended by his team for the harassment and bullying of a Dolphins rookie, offensive tackle Jonathan Martin.
Alarming details have been leaked, including a threatening voicemail featuring a racial slur on Martin’s answering machine. Martin is away from the team as well, having checked himself into a hospital seeking aid for emotional distress before returning home to California.
You’re all capable of using Google and educating yourselves further on this; I’m not a member of the press.
What I am is someone who loves the sport of football, a peculiar breed of fan who fell in love with it despite not having a single family member who knows anything about it. Playing in high school helped; living in the greater New York area for both of the Giants’ recent Super Bowl championships helped as well.
But what I love about football, above all, is that it’s a brutal, beautiful ballet. It’s chess with live, thinking, seemingly superhuman pieces.
The problem, one that’s been exacerbated by the Incognito-Martin debacle, is that these players are people. On Sundays, America gathers in front of its TVs and watches these players beat the crap out of each other. They get millions of dollars to be our society’s politer, gentler gladiators.
It’s a sad truth that we want a quality product but we often don’t particularly care about the means of its manufacture. If you ask a random person what those pros do when they’re not wearing helmets and pads, I’d be willing to bet their answer will be something along the lines of “I don’t know, they’re probably normal people.”
How the hell can they be “normal?” They’re handed checks with six, seven, even eight zeroes on them, to spend six days practicing beating the crap out of each other in order to do a hell of a job beating the crap out of each other on the seventh.
It’s created a culture we don’t often bother to stop and examine, a culture in which Incognito, a Caucasian, is defended by his African-American teammates for using the N-word to refer to Jonathan Martin, an African-American. They said he’s an “honorary black man,” because he gets… something. I can’t pretend to really understand, but I can wrap my head around it. Martin attended Stanford and is the son of two Harvard-educated lawyers—probably why Incognito called him a “half N-word” in the voicemail now being used as evidence. He was the one to say it, but how many of Martin’s teammates thought it?
Throughout this mess, there has been an unexpectedly incisive examination of locker room culture and the line between rookie hazing and bullying. These questions have been met by cries that people don’t understand what it means to suit up on a Sunday in the NFL
I agree. We can’t know, because we’ve turned a blind eye. I don’t know what these players have been through before they got to the NFL; I think it’s fortunate that I can’t imagine it. I can’t imagine the resolve and us-against-the-world mentality that is fostered in pro locker rooms around the country.
I don’t think I could handle it. And that’s not a coincidence. Jonathan Martin is, by all accounts, a sweet guy who listens to classical music and would like nothing better than to be liked.
He’s normal. And maybe that’s why he burned out.
I’m not implying he was weak. Quite the contrary: I think he made a rational and mature decision. Hazing is intense, the line between it and bullying is blurred, and in a culture that will defend the sanctity of the locker room to its dying breath, you can’t go to the coach for help. In fact it was the Miami coaching staff that set Incognito on Martin’s case, telling him to “toughen [Martin] up.”
I think he was a normal person who entered an arena in which normal is weak. We live in a culture that reveres competitive psychopaths like Michael Jordan, a culture of people who skip work or class when they have a cold yet tear into players for skipping games when they have the flu. Ours is a world of fallible humans that demand invincible champions.
I don’t get much of this, really. I can’t; I’ve never stepped into the NFL’s world. But I know that a sport as bloody and brutal as football has created a culture that gives us our champions by sinking its hooks into their empathy and compassion and tearing them out with “locker room culture,” replacing them with killer instinct and a savage brotherhood.
In all of this, I can’t pretend to know enough about what Incognito did to say it was wrong by the unwritten rules of the Dolphins’ locker room. But I do know that this culture would have been obvious to anyone who paused and really thought about it.
It just took Jonathan Martin, a normal man trapped in that world until he left it, to make us start thinking.