Going Incognito
Issue   |   Tue, 11/19/2013 - 23:10

Recently, it’s often been the case that the year’s biggest sports story is also the most unexpected — and the strangest. The thrill of a championship race or a historic individual performance can no longer satisfy America’s collective sports nation. Now, at every turn, we eagerly await scandal, shame and disgrace, as if that’s what sports is really all about to us. When it comes to sports, we are gluttons for the latest episode of moral turpitude.

So, when the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito story broke a few weeks ago, it seemed, despite the bizarre and somewhat disturbing nature of the story, like nothing out of the ordinary. Maybe the Skip Baylesses of the country were even a little bit happy. A story like this provides pundits with their time to shine; the opinions of men and women who talk and write about entertainment for a living (after all, sports are entertainment!) are suddenly seen in a larger cultural context.

Having mercifully steered clear of most of the initial media coverage of this story, I was not subjected to the thousands of faux profundities about how issues of race and bullying in sports reflect those same issues in the rest of society.
Despite those feelings, however, I soon became aware that this story was very much worth taking a look at.

Let me preface any further discussion by saying that this story is just plain weird. There is something intuitively absurd about “playground behavior” among rich, grown men. Unfortunately, however, it is something that happens — and it probably always has.

How did Jonathan Martin get to be the object of such harassment and shaming?

Generations of psychologists have studied power dynamics, so it’s clearly a complex question and one for which I don’t have a straight answer.

I do know that Martin, an offensive lineman for the Dolphins, was not performing especially well on the field. In sports, success and failure are ultra-visible. If someone struggles, he quickly becomes the odd man out, and that can lead to all sorts of unpleasant things.

But athletes struggle all the time; usually, when that happens, they don’t stick around for very long. The unusual thing about this case is that, despite an abysmal rookie season, Martin not only returned to the Dolphins but continued to start on the offensive line.

Purely from a performance standpoint, anyone should have known that that move would be bad for both Martin and the Dolphins. That’s especially the case if Martin was perceived to have a lack of “mental toughness.” Some of what I have read points to the fact that Incognito’s infamous voice mail came as part of a regimen — one led by the Dolphins’ coaching staff — to “toughen up” Martin. Again, however, this is the NFL. If someone isn’t doing the job, you bring in somebody else. Putting so much effort into “toughening up” a marginal player seems antiquated and pretty ineffective.

Strange, too, is the alleged behavior of Richie Incognito in this situation — to say the least. Using certain racial epithets in today’s mainstream culture is taboo. Using them where they can be amply documented, such as in a voice mail (who even leaves voice mails, anyway?).

It is also a one-way ticket to forfeiting the better part of your credibility and even your future. We saw that with the Riley Cooper incident earlier this fall. If and when Incognito returns an NFL locker room, it’s almost certain that his teammates will comprise a wide variety of racial demographics. Regardless of his fate, how can he ever again expect to command their respect?

Why a professional athlete would effectively jeopardize the rest of his career to “send a message” to his own teammate is truly beyond me.

Judging by the level of rage in the voice mail, it’s fair to guess that, even before it was recorded, things had been getting personal between Incognito and Martin. Even so, Incognito handled the — ahem — difference of opinion in an appallingly unprofessional manner. Incognito’s reputation is far from spotless, but don’t even the least refined professional athletes have someone that helps them look after their images? If so, how could that person have allowed this to happen?

As far as I know, the question of whether or not the Dolphins’ coaching staff was behind Incognito’s bullying remains speculative. If it were true, it would be almost too much for me to believe.

And that’s not because I doubt for an instant that any professional coaches, even in their “leadership positions,” are immune from gross behavior. Oh no. It would simply show an incredible disregard for self-interest on the part of everyone in the Dolphins organization. Clearly, these events will not go without consequences.

Looking around the internet yesterday, I read an article on Brett Favre’s response to this story. He made the point that bullying incidents such as these happen all the time in the NFL and that Martin was unique only in his response to the pressure. It seems rather brazen of Favre, as a celebrity, not to come straight to the defense of the alleged victim. But he certainly speaks from experience, and, whether we like it or not, he might be right.

If, as he claims, this does happen often and Martin is an outlier, then NFL players somehow have lost the right to withstand affronts to their individual dignity.

That doesn’t sound like professional sports to me. That sounds like prison.

In this century, our level of comfort with the sport of football lies in the fact that it almost, but never fully, crosses over into unmitigated animalism. If Favre is right, all that is not so clear anymore. Maybe it’s not right or wrong; maybe it’s just the way things are. But it certainly makes us rethink what we’ve been watching.

Another internet writer posed the question of whether Martin should ever try to play football again. What’s important here is that he certainly doesn’t have to; he was a Classics major at Stanford.

Either way though, Martin can’t really win. If he returns, his troubles with teammates are probably far from over. If he doesn’t, then Incognito and the others have basically succeeded in wrecking his livelihood. Really, it’s a sad set of choices for a man who, as far as we know, has never done anything significantly wrong.

Where this story will lead is still an intriguing question to me.

And there’s a good chance I’m not the only one who can’t wait to find out.

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