If one examines the arc of a headline sports story in the early 21st century, it usually proves to be a roller coaster worthy curve. I'm not talking one of those old corkscrew numbers with twists and turns–though at times those stories do abound–but more like the big ticket thrill rides that find us starting off at ground level and soaring to unimaginable heights in the sky. Layers of meaning and effect are added, more and more information leaks out as we climb, and before long, we're at the peak of the first hill, looking out and over the landscape of sports wondering what the hell made us think it would be fun to hang this high in the air, where our perspective is out of wack and the slow ascent that brought us this far from the ground doesn't even register in memory.
This analogy is particularly apt when it comes to the ongoing saga of the 2013 Miami Dolphins, who right now must be wondering exactly how terrifying the drop from the top of this story’s hill is going to be. A couple weeks back, I'm sure the players, coaches and fans in South Beach wouldn't have dared imagine a media circus so large and two of their offensive lineman in its center ring, but that as they say, is where we're at right now. When news surfaced that the Dolphins’ Jonathan Martin had left the team indefinitely to deal with a personal issue, the ripple along the sporting pond was minuscule. But we quickly learned that Martin, who has an anecdotal history of mental duress and a (gasp!) Stanford education backed up by intellectual parents, wasn't leaving his teammates behind for no good reason. The man his teammates affectionately call ‘Big Weirdo’ was stepping away because he had flat had enough of the less-than-genial treatment his fellow Dolphins were apt to hand out. Rookie hazing is one thing, but bullying and harassing a second year guy right out of town is another all together, and from what Martin sez (sorry, reading the new Pynchon right now) and his camp continues to leak, this isn’t just some gentle ribbing.
We found out the straw that broke the lineman's back was when high school cafeteria style, a table full of teammates got up and left when Martin took a seat with them for a team meal. That knucklehead move aside, Martin also spoke to consistent mistreatment by his fellow Dolphins, having to chip in 15K on a jaunt to Vegas he didn’t even go on, continued hazing into his second year in the league, a general disregard for his dislike for such treatment, all culminating in the release of text messages and voice mails from Richie Incognito, the embattled Dolphins vet who called Martin a half-nigger, said he'd shit in the young man's mouth, and polished it off by saying he was going to kill him.
Incognito, despite his name's import, is a fairly conspicuous miscreant. How’s this for a brief career summation: being suspended from and then essentially kicked off the Nebraska football team, transferring to Oregon where he was dismissed within a week's time, ending up on what Tony Dungy called several NFL teams' DNDC (Do Not Draft because of Character) lists, eventually drafted by St. Louis, racking up so many fines and personal foul penalties with the Rams in five years that he was summarily cut, followed by a cup of coffee in Buffalo, which led him to finally land in the mess he's made in Miami. He's a serial punk who once trash talked Antonio Smith into ripping Incognito's helmet off, then attack him with it. Just the kind of guy I'd want molding my team's young linemen. Good grief. And check the GIF:
But being surprised by Incognito's behavior is akin to surprise that members of a ballet troupe have rhythm. It's part of a football player's job description to be tough and to an extent, unruly–Incognito being at the extreme (and additionally racist) end of this bruising spectrum. And hazing, if you want to call it institutionalized or not, is also part of the game, especially at preseason training camp, the place where a team takes shape, bonds, and teammates spend most of their waking moments together. Did Incognito take it too far? Yes he did. But to what extent we'll never really know. Beyond the racial overtones, the Dolphins’ group dynamic is for the most part unknown to all of us who don’t strap on a helmet every Sunday in the fall. I can't speak to what is and isn't acceptable behavior in Miami, any more than you can. Incognito may be an abusive (ahem, racist) outlier, but is also an example of the nature of the NFL beast. The league just doesn't want to admit it. They want to condemn tough guy behavior and hits to the head, and yet promote an image of concern and commitment to player safety, the latter of which is done with a huge wink and a neck breaking nod. The NFL is one thing, says it's another, and has to decide at some point what the actual realities on and off the field really are.
But again, we should certainly not be surprised. Football is the manliest game among the manly American sports. It’s full of jocks, tough guys, and varying degrees of dickhead, so why does a guy like Richie Incognito and his treatment of someone like Jonathan Martin, strike anyone as odd? The brash bully putting the screws to the aloof nerd is a story as old as time itself, and on a football team? Of course this kind of bullshit goes on. The difference here, and the reason the story has now gained traction with not only the sports media, but also national news outlets, is that it pushes hot button issues in America. Race is the third rail of any news story, but when combined with money, fame, the most popular game in the country, and bullying–a topic du jour on the internet and beyond–the headlines not only grow in size, but reach out to ever more ears and eyeballs.
While the character types and plot movements in this story are nothing if not unoriginal, and play to the current national conscience surrounding bullying and the manufactured specter of wussification, what the Dolphins are dealing with tells us more about is what it’s like to be a professional football player. Race is the undercard to the main event of football’s ridiculous warrior mentality and the bullies and jerks it manufactures.
That’s because the racial aspect is easy to identify and condemn: anyone that uses the language that Incognito did is a racist first and fool second. We can all agree on that. But what the story says about football’s culture and overall aesthetic is where the real intrigue lies. It’s a league where by all accounts thoughtful, at times sensitive young athletes like Jonathan Martin are bullied off of teams made up of men who do nothing but defend his primary bully as soon as both are out the door. A league that saw fit to severely punish the perpetrators behind Bounty Gate, but is itself exposed in a book and accompanying documentary as categoric deniers of the repercussions of head injuries. A league in which it is now near-criminal to target another player’s head, but top brass continue to push for an 18-game season and Thursday night double-headers, only increasing the level of carnage. Plain and simple, it is a league that wants to have its brutal cake and eat it too, and for every nice guy like Tony Gonzalez or Arian Foster, there are five more that are closer in temperament to Richie Incognito.
The story of Jonathan Martin is sad and telling at the end of the day. It’s sad that Richie Incognito, who is clearly a dick, and evidently a racist (he also called Warren Sapp that famous n-word, on the playing field no less, according to the former Tampa Bay Buccaneer), can lead his teammates in pushing around a young athlete with his whole career still in front of him. It’s sad that after that, his teammates and other players lined up to support the bully, and not the victim. It’s sad that the NFL is a place where this sort of thing still goes on, and it’s sad that we’re surprised that it does. Football is violent, the men who play it are intense, possibly performance-drug-addled hired guns, and it is a boys’ club to the Nth degree. As fans, we love it because of these very facts–the way we like action movies and violent video games and books of the very same nature. I previously opined on why my love for football is giving me all kinds of misgivings lately, but more than ever I’m even more tired of the NFL’s two-faced rationale. They don’t want to clean their room, they want to shove everything into the closet when the media happens to check in. Deep down, the powers that be in football know that its manly, violent aura is its bread and butter, and they can’t continue to put lipstick on a pig(skin) and tell us it’s a pretty girl.
And of course, we haven't even mentioned what the coaching staff and front office in Miami knew, but to a lot of folks, it feels like yes, indeed, they did order the Code Red. And if they didn't know about any of this, that's even worse. An NFL team should know its own stripes, and whether or not they change, and I'm pretty sure the Dolphins do in this case. Because while a guy like Incognito–or another recent headline stirrer Brandon Meriweather–is deplorable, at least Meriweather seems to be in on the league’s sick joke that he’s exactly the kind of monster the NFL creates. Don’t just take it from me though, the fan and observer, or Meriweather, the perennial headhunter, take it instead from Chicago Bears wide receiver and league veteran Brandon Marshall. When asked about the situation in his former NFL home of Miami, he summed things up thusly:
"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.” – via Deadspin via the Chicago Tribune
What Brandon Marshall so succinctly points out and what this roller coaster of a story in Miami continues to accentuate is that football cannot walk the line between rigorous physical attrition and tough-guy BS and politically correct, media-friendly exhibitions of contrition. The NFL has to decide if it is more Richie Incognito or Jonathan Martin. More bully, or victim. Because in the eyes of this writer, no real truth lay between.