What’s happening right now in Miami is, in a way, perfect. It’s also horrible on every level, but it’s given us the exact ingredients needed to have a larger public discussion about grand issues in football, like how the sport defines masculinity, and on a wider scale, how coach-player interaction should be conducted in times of conflict, especially in youth sports.
It’s all been both fascinating and cruel, engaging and disgusting, intriguing and revolting. At the center, of course, is a voicemail and text messages from now suspended Dolphins guard Richie Incognito, a vile and disturbing string of inexcusable hate left for Jonathan Martin to hear. The NFL is now investigating, Martin has lawyered up and is going through therapy, and there’s a very real chance both players have taken their last snap in Miami.
Bullying and hazing, and the extent to which both can erode the inner man, have been the main topics of exploration all week. Some murkiness clouded that conversation yesterday when almost universally Dolphins players defended Incognito, saying that he and Martin were friends as far as they could see. Brian Hartline was the most outspoken, telling us that Martin laughed at the voicemail initially, and that the two would sit together on team flights. He also later shared a picture of Incognito and Martin chillin’ happily in New Orleans.
None of this is surprising, because what’s normal and standard ribbing to one party is hurtful to another. It’s entirely possibly and reasonable to think that Martin internalized and hid his torment deeply, so deeply that it went undetected. And while doing so he also tried to blend in, and gain acceptance. Nothing worked.
But I don’t know any of that definitively, and neither do you. No, through nearly a week of reaction I’m left with questions. Specifically, two of them.
We don’t honestly think that an environment in which you’re driven to fight a teammate is a good environment, right?
No, I don’t think anyone honestly believes that. And yes, I’m aware that an NFL locker room is a slightly different work environment than your standard row of cubicles. There’s passion, adrenaline, and aggressiveness flowing among all present, and that concoction can result in outbursts of emotion. This is common sense thinking, and although the NFL is obviously on an entirely different level, anyone who’s spent any amount of time in a male locker room has experienced some degree testosterone gone wrong.
But what’s problematic here is that — even if it was initiated or encouraged by the coaching staff — Incognito’s actions went beyond locker room horseplay, which is made clear by the voicemail. Emotionally, that followed Martin.
A state of being fragile was not only created, but furthered, and aside from the common sense notion that having teammates clubbing each other — or merely wanting to — isn’t healthy, worse is the notion that Martin should instinctively take up that confrontation, and that immediately it would end his problems. For some, that went beyond a notion, and instead confusion took over.
This Incognito-Martin story is still incredibly confusing to me. How did Martin not just punch him in the face?
— Bart Hubbuch (@HubbuchNYP) November 4, 2013
That thinking wasn’t at all unique, as throughout the week it was echoed first by Antrel Rolle…
“So, Richie Incognito, is he wrong? Absolutely. But I think the other guy is just as much to blame. Hopefully he’s able to bounce back and recover from all that has happened and take awareness of, you know, man, you’re a grown-ass man. You need to stand up for yourself. Hazing is one thing. Bullying is another.”
And former players like Tony Siragusa…
“I think [Martin] should have confronted Incognito. I think he should have went up to him and said ‘What’s your problem?’ or said something to him or kept it in house.”
Even Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland reportedly came to the conclusion that Martin should punch Incognito, adding violence to abuse with the most twisted logic. At least Siragusa and Rolle had enough grown-assed man in them to put their names to words, unlike this front office person who spoke to Sports Illustrated and comfortably hid behind the veil of anonymity.
“If Incognito did offend him racially, that’s something you have to handle as a man! Mike Pouncey was a rookie at one point while Incognito was there and you never heard any complaints from him. There’s no other way to put it, other than him being sofTTT!”
This is where we arrive at the central problem with confrontation among teammates in a situation of this nature. A blanket is being thrown over every player which assumes they’re all the same, identical face-smashers, and we want them all to react quickly in a fit of rage while staring down the Incognitos of the NFL. Some might, and hell, maybe even many would. But we don’t all have identical mental wiring, and the same quiet, reserved people who are more susceptible to bullying have become that way for a reason.
Being aggressive and violent is not a natural state for them, and since when is that a bad personal characteristic? Martin is a football player, so inherently on the field there’s a certain level of brutality. But as his high school observed, away from the field Martin leans towards being friendly, and being, you know, a nice person. When that describes you, conflict is avoided:
“He always wanted to make everybody happy and make friends and not be a problem. All of his teachers loved him. All of his teammates loved him. His nickname was Moose and he was happy to have that. He was always ‘yes or no sir,’ do whatever you ask him to do. I can see where somebody that’s a bully will take advantage of him, and rather than him say anything would just hold it inside.
“I can see where if somebody was bullying him he would take that to heart, and be concerned and think it was his fault.”
That’s not the sort of person who clubs a teammate. That’s the sort of person who sits, internalizes, and eventually erupts.
Martin did that, and then he did what was absolutely and undoubtedly the right thing: he turned outward for support, instead of internalizing even more.
Why is the term “football culture” used so freely? When does it simply become “neanderthal culture” instead?
Incognito is not special. He may be situated on the most extreme end of locker room caveman behavior, but his general character is not something new.
For lack of a better term, I’ll fall back on one that’s been thrown around often this week: he’s the enforcer. As a veteran and even a democratically elected member of the team’s leadership council (surely they have a conch), Incognito adopted a motivating role. His methods may have been questionable at times, but his teammates both current and former said there was never a line crossed, and it was mostly rah rah stuff.
That’s football culture, we say. That’s how it is.
And if that’s where it stopped — motivating through a voice that isn’t your indoor voice, just as we’ve seen, say, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady do with cameras present on a Sunday — then we’d have no problem. But since often a message from a player (and especially a position peer) is heard louder than one from a coach, coaches sometimes ask a veteran player to deliver said message. It’s a common enough practice that with cameras also present a few summers ago for Hard Knocks, Rex Ryan not-so gently encouraged Rob Turner to “toughen up” Vernon Gholston.
That’s football culture, we say. That’s how it is.
And if that’s where it stopped — if Joe Philbin directed Incognito to plant some chest hair on Martin as was reported, and he then did that with his well-established enforcer aggressiveness while still maintaining some human decency — business would carry on as per usual. Instead, somehow in Incognito’s mind that voicemail was humorous.
That’s football culture, Ricky Williams said. That’s how it is.
“I just understood that’s the nature of the game. When I came in as a rookie, they called me ‘Ricky Weirdo.’ And they busted my balls and they gave me a hard time, but I just laughed because it was funny. … If someone sent me those messages, I would send a text back and call him a redneck and put ‘lol.’ To me, situations that you got yourself into, you got yourself into. It falls on you to find a way to get yourself out.”
It’s the “nature of the beast” said Warren Sapp, who admitted to torturing former teammate Chidi Ahanotu as his own motivating tactic that, in his mind, worked flawlessly. In reality, as Ahanotu noted in a Facebook post yesterday, Sapp’s motivating led to numerous confrontations with teammates, and still the venomous behavior didn’t stop.
Prompted by the Incognito-Martin incident and perhaps to a lesser extent Sapp being included in the Bucs’ ring of honor this weekend, Ahanotu stated an unsurprising yet awful truth: really talented players get the jerk hall pass.
A legendary coach once said to us that if a guy is a jerk but he plays football great, then he’s not a jerk to him. Sapp’s prowess on the field & national acclaim has been embraced by the Buc owners the Glazers, former head coaches Tony Dungy & Jon Gruden & the local media regardless of full knowledge of Sapp’s belligerence & insulting behavior. In the end, a pass is given to players when they are superstars. Even passes to be included all the way into the NFL Hall Of Fame. If Richie Incognito was such a superstar then the Nation would never have heard about his bullying altercation.
So you’re in that position, and you’re the target of a Sapp or an Incognito. But you don’t quite have the mental strength of Ahanotu to withstand the berating and tormenting. Perhaps your tolerance for such conflict is much lower, and on Martin’s level. Yet everyone is expected to react the same, and accept the same abuse if and when it happens.
That’s football culture. That’s how it is.