Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Bully boys: NFL “culture” runs amok

Over the past week or so, I’ve been following – off and on – the story about the Miami Dolphin’s player, Jonathan Martin, who left the team after deciding that he’d had enough with the locker-room-on-steroids behavior that he’s had to put up with there.

If you aren’t up on this story, Martin is a second year offensive lineman, and not in any way, shape, or form your stereotypical NFL lunk-head. A classics major with a degree from Stanford, he’s the son of two Harvard-trained lawyers, one of whom is black, the other white.

Okay. It’s not exactly surprising to learn that a sport that glorifies violence, runs on war/military analogies, blares martial music during its televised games, and is, without a doubt, a true redoubt of full-bore testosterone, is not exactly a refined, brainy, high-culture workplace. But some of the abuse that Martin has had to put up with was vile, even given the low standards that one would suspect.

Why should anyone have to put up with being called a “half-nigger”, and get sent a text message by a teammate threatening to run a train on his sister.

As the story gets out, piecemeal, it now appears that tough-guy and abuse-rin-chief Richie Incognito (who has since been suspended) may, in fact, have been encouraged to by Dolphins management to toughen Martin up. 

I have read a couple of very thoughtful pieces on this situation, and I’ll direct you to both of them

On Bleacher Report, Ryan Riddle – a former professional football player – has an excellent article on his experience as the team weirdo during his playing days. Like Martin, Riddle was well-educated (Berkley), introverted/socially awkward, “half black, half white”, and not interested in the sorts of things most of his teammates wanted to talk about – hunting, rap, expensive clothing. Riddle’s standoffish-ness and brainpower made him the butt of plenty of hazing, but, unlike Martin, Riddle was willing to knock a few heads to get the guys to back off. Eventually, they left him alone.

Riddle also directly takes on the Martin situation. While not condoning in the least the vile behavior of Incognito et al., he does make the point:

We need to consider the possibility that Martin possesses a character and personality type that does not fit in the harsh world of the NFL. Furthermore, we should be careful with any attempts to make a uniquely demanding sport tolerable for those who struggle to thrive within it.

The Darwinian qualities we perpetually seek to minimize are, in fact, the very elements that make the game so special.

There’s a reason I have not mentioned Richie Incognito once until now. For me, he represents the opposite end of the spectrum from Martin. But his tendencies and character are that which happen to contribute to his success in the NFL.

Though he often crosses the line and can be seen as a raging madman, he actually better represents what an NFL general manager wants than Martin does from a character standpoint. Intense, violent, brutal and aggressive are assets for an offensive lineman—whereas kind, friendly, passive and peaceful are not.

This is just the nature of the game.

If these two personality types were working in a law firm, Incognito would likely feel like the outsider struggling to relate to his coworkers, while Martin would presumably be more at home than ever. In this hypothetical environment, Incognito would be the brunt of constant ridicule and made to feel both primitive and inadequate. (Source: Bleacher Report.)

This story has got me thinking more about football. And my thinking leads me to conclude that football replaced the non-violent, slower-paced and more intellectually satisfying (to me, at any rate) sport of baseball as “America’s game” at just about the same time that our society and culture were going through some incredible changes.

The feminist movement was bringing women into positions of power. Blue collar brawn jobs were being replaced with pink collar “knowledge worker” jobs. No more draft, so most American men no longer experience the military. Gay folks started emerging from the closet. And oh, yeah, we lost the war in Viet Nam.

No real surprise that, when macho-ville started to topple a bit, and our belief in America the Indomitable got a bit shaky, sports fans went atavistic.

And here comes football, roaring into town to satisfy that atavism.

For starters, just look at the team names.

Baseball has Red Sox and White Sox, Orioles and Angels.

Football is Buccaneers, Steelers, Raiders, and Cowboys.

Football is The Bears; baseball is The Cubbies.

Interesting that one of the few “soft” names in football is the Miami Dolphins, which in some weird way probably contributed to that particular team having to prove their manhood more than some others. (It doesn’t sound like any of the teams in the NFL are exactly kind and gentle, but it does appear that, in some, the level of brutality and rancid behavior is less pronounced.)

I certainly wish Jonathan Martin the best of luck.

It must be terrible to have achieved what must have been a longed- and long worked-for dream to play in the National Football League., only to discover that the environment it comes with is so shamefully appalling. But Martin has a lot of other options – options that many other players, likely including Richie Incognito don’t have. Maybe Martin needs to move on and leave the sick, violent, misogynist culture of football behind him.

As I mentioned in a post I did last week, I’m a sports fan.

Sure, baseball is my main squeeze, but I enjoy (and can intelligently follow) any of the Big Four. But, as I also mentioned last week, football is to sport as veal is to eating out. I can only watch/order it if I don’t think about it.

I think I’m off football for a while.


It’s interesting that most of the Dolphin players have come to the defense of Incognito (who is white), with the African-American players dubbing Incognito “honorary” (as in honorary black man), and viewing Martin as inauthentic, less than black.

There’s a good article on this angle by Jason Whitlock over on ESPN, which starts out:

Mass incarceration has turned segments of Black America so upside down that a tatted-up, N-word-tossing white goon is more respected and accepted than a soft-spoken, highly intelligent black Stanford graduate. (Source: ESPN.)

Definitely worth a read.

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