You might have caught wind of the recent Miami Dolphins’ controversy. While it’s easy to dismiss the dispute as a war between the two players most directly involved -Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito- in truth the story and the resulting back and forth provide a telling look into the bullying, bravado and intolerance permitted and encouraged by NFL culture. It may be just as tempting to assume that this controversy is a sign of the times, the truth is that the fallout has elicited some insightful commentary on football and the NFL from those in a position to know. I wanted to share some of those items, but beforehand here’s a quick summary of what’s going on.
In short, the two players involved are 24 year old Jonathan Martin and 30 year old Richie Incognito, both of whom are teammates on the Miami Dolphins NFL football team. Incognito has a history of violence, a history of bullying, and a history of using racial epithets comfortably under the influence and on the football field. Martin is said to have been a “friend” of Incognito’s who was subjected to intense bullying by his teammates, and Incognito specifically. Incognito allegedly was asked by coaches to “toughen” Martin up, which if to be believed, included everything from being called racial slurs to being ridiculed in front of the team. Martin’s treatment resulted in him having what’s been described as a “breakdown” incited by a table full of his teammates getting up and leaving when he sat down to join them. upon him attempting to join him, which ultimately led to him leaving the team. The league is currently investigating the particulars of the case but a leaked racially charged and violent voicemail left on Martin’s phone by Incognito was enough to result in his immediate and indefinite suspension from the Dolphins. Despite mounting evidence that points to an abusive relationship, the members of the Miami Dolphins who have weighed in overwhelmingly did so to voice support for Incognito.
In response, Martin’s counsel released the following statement:
Jonathan Martin’s toughness is not at issue… Jonathan endured harassment that went far beyond the traditional locker room hazing. He attempted to befriend the same teammates that subjected him to the abuse with the hope that doing so would end the harassment. This is a textbook reaction of victims of bullying. Despite these efforts, the taunting continued. Beyond the well-publicized voicemail with its racial epithet, Jonathan endured a malicious physical attack on him by a teammate, and daily vulgar comments.
In many ways this controversy has put into question- if not uprooted- stereotypical notions of jocks and “tough guys” by sparking an actual conversation on the humanity of the young men who suit up and hit the field every weekend. Beyond that, questions of race, language, and acceptability are also being put into focus. While Martin’s teammates may be inclined to leave him high and dry, current and former players continue to weigh in on why this controversy matters in the first place. What’s being debated is greater than one man’s failings or one man’s hurt feelings. We’re debating what’s at the heart of a game that leaves many of its participants with head injuries and seen other participants outright take their own lives.
Nothing is black and white.
It’d be foolish to try to make any definitive statements on masculinity or mental health based on the particulars of this one incident, the specifics of which are perplexing– Martin and Incognito were said to have been close friends. Yet that friendship doesn’t provide insight into the mental state of either men. It’d be foolish to make any rash generalizations but it’d be equally foolish to turn a blind eye to the cultural and social dynamics that do, in fact, encourage the sort of tough guy, man up attitude that characterizes the NFL.
In the wake of the controversy, Brandon Marshall of the Chicago Bears did an excellent job of summing up the failings of NFL culture saying;
Take a little boy and a little girl. A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is ‘Get up, shake it off. You’ll be OK. Don’t cry.’ When a little girl falls down, what do we say? ‘It’s going to be OK.’ We validate their feelings. So right there from that moment, we’re teaching our men to mask their feelings, don’t show their emotions. And it’s that times 100 with football players. You can’t show that you’re hurt, you can’t show any pain. So for a guy to come into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, that’s a problem. That’s what I mean by the culture of the NFL. And that’s what we have to change.
Marshall speaks from experience having personally suffered from mental illness, he goes on to suggest that players should actually get together to talk about things like this. It’s a sentiment that’s gaining popularity as more players step forward using big messy words like “trust” and “caring”.
ESPN’s Chris Carter thinks Martin didn’t approach his coaches because “he didn’t trust him”, noting the importance of trust in a game where you rely on your teammates to not get your head cracked. He went on;
When a young kid can’t go to a coach and tell him what’s happening to him- that’s how guys get weeded out in the football league. But you’ve gotta care about these guys…. it’s a shame nobody [stood] up for that kid.
Furthermore, beyond the issues of manliness and vulnerability there’s the racial component. Incognito called Martin, who is mixed race, a “half-nigger” and he was known to throw the word around liberally in front of his teammates. The word and its usage cause disagreement even among black players. In response to this controversy, Shannon Sharpe took to ESPN to admonish the Dolphin players who permitted Incognito to throw the word:
People will tell you what you want to hear, people will tell you what they think you’ll believe and then they’ll tell you the truth. From what I’m hearing from the dolphins, from what I’ve read in the paper- I don’t believe they’re telling the truth. Ted Wells will get to the bottom of the truth but I want to talk about a culture that was fostered in that locker room and was allowed to flourish. The Miami Dolphin’s locker room probably consists of 75, 80% blacks. If you allow Richie Incognito to walk around in an open locker room and to use a racial epithet that most black Americans, all black Americans know the stigmatize and the hate and the vitriol that comes with that word– if you allow him to do that, you’re encouraging him to do that. It has to go unchecked. I read- and I don’t know, it’s alleged- that some black players said Richie Incognito as an honorary black. There’s no such thing. This tells me everything I need to know about the Miami Dolphin’s locker room. how we got here and why we got here. Because so many people- if you don’t understand it, because I’m 45 I grew up in rural south Gloria maybe I’m a disconnect… maybe it’s me. Just ask your parents, ask your Grandparents. The mountain that they climbed so that a black person in America can have respect, so they could have dignity, and you allow this in an open locker room to take place, it’s unacceptable. I place this, I’m so disappointed… I just hope that someone was misquoted, I hope I’m wrong and they didn’t allow Richie Incognito to say this racially charged word in an open locker room and go unchecked… that’s unacceptable. I’m embarrassed for [everyone]- because when he said, if he said that to Jonathan Martin, he didn’t only say that to him he’s talking to you, too. Because if you’re black you know what that word means.
Alternatively, over in the NBA, when Clippers player Matt Barnes was fined $25,000 for tweeting the word, Charles Barkley jumped to his defense stating that while Barnes shouldn’t have used the word publicly;
Listen, what I do with my black friends is not up to white America to dictate to me what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate.
Without delving too deeply into it, my thoughts on the word itself are likely a nuanced and a contradictory cocktail of Richard Pryor and Louis CK’s sentiments. I agree with the notion that fear of a word gives it power and yet it’s not a word I feel compelled to use. I don’t care for censorship but I think the historical and cultural implications of the word, paired with the fact that it genuinely hurts people’s feelings to hear it, is reason enough to not use it. I don’t feel that way about other four letter words because I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument as to why those words carry more weight than others.
I don’t know what Incognito’s intention was in using the word and I don’t know what Martin was feeling upon hearing the word. Yet the fact remains, once the dust on the who-said-what aspect of this controversy settles there’s a lesson to be learned and it’s one rooted in our shared humanity.
Brian Phillips has an excellent piece over at Grantland on warrior culture that I highly recommend reading in full. In it he hits on what I can only hope is the ultimate takeaway from what’s transpired as he emphasizes the need to care for unseen injuries saying:
The brain is a part of the body. It’s an organ. It’s a physical thing. Sometimes it breaks. Sometimes it breaks because you beat it against the inside of your skull so hard playing football,and sometimes — because it’s unimaginably intricate, the brain, way more intricate than even a modified read-option — it breaks for reasons that are harder to see. Your ability to chortle “boys will be boys” doesn’t mean that psychological abuse of the sort that Martin apparently endured can’t widen that kind of fracture. But then, does the cause even matter?
If what comes from this back and forth is just a bit more awareness, a stronger inclination towards seeing the person behind the uniform, and caring from the wounds incited by harsh words and cruel actions then that in itself is a welcome step towards the end zone.