By Matt Goisman
McALESTER — Professional football is as its name implies: a profession. It’s a job.
We want football to be something more — a ritual (maybe), or a symbol of American values (not really) — for many players in the National Football League it’s just how they earn a living.
Because of this, NFL locker rooms must be subject to similar workplace standards as you would find anywhere in any industry. And while any collection of hyper-competitive young men will produce some level of aggressive interaction, a line still exists between acceptable and unacceptable behavior, between behavior that creates a productive work environment and a hostile one.
Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito didn’t just cross that line with teammate Jonathan Martin — he ignored it completely. Incognito broke one of his teammates — hence the term, “breakdown” — and for that he has to go.
As this saga stretches into its third week since Martin left the Dolphins on Oct. 28, the stories coming out of the Miami locker room are getting worse and worse. A voice mail rife with racial slurs left by Incognito threatened physical violence against Martin’s mother, and now new accusations include physical attacks and threats of sexual violence against Martin’s sister.
Incognito was accused of sexual harassment a year ago, according to a Florida police report made public Friday. And his history of antagonism, bullying and aggression dates back to his time at the University of Nebraska in 2002.
Incognito and several of his teammates have tried to argue that his actions have been misinterpreted. That the voicemail made public last week was meant to be funny, not hateful.
But using racial slurs isn’t funny. Threatening to hurt a person’s family isn’t funny.
Threatening to sexually violate someone’s sister isn’t funny. Ever.
Trash-talking is unavoidable in professional sports, and most players find a way to take it in stride. That Richard Seymour, at the time a defensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders, found something Incognito said so awful that he punched Incognito during a 2011 game is more evidence that Incognito’s style goes well beyond acceptable limits.
Perhaps Martin could’ve found a way to fight back against Incognito, and perhaps a Dolphins teammate should’ve stopped Incognito at some point. Perhaps there’s even some truth to Incognito’s defense that he was ordered by his coaches to toughen Martin up.
But even if Incognito was just following orders, football players aren’t robots. They’re still people with brains and in theory some kind of moral compass that tells them when enough is enough.
Blaming Incognito’s actions on his coaches or his teammates suggests Incognito isn’t responsible for his actions. It’s that exact culture that allows monsters like Incognito to continue hurting people.
Some light form of hazing will always exist in sports. But there’s a clear difference between making a rookie shave his head or wear a silly costume or buy everyone on the team a steak and personally attacking another player over and over and over.
As Brian Phillips said in his brilliant Nov. 7 essay on Grantland.com, if hazing is prohibited in the military, where not being tough could actually get you killed, why is hazing allowed in sports, where all it means is you might lose a game?
Perhaps Martin wasn’t mentally tough enough for football, though his time at Stanford suggests nothing of the sort. But maybe we all need to start changing what “toughness” means in a sport that seems more likely than any other to badly damage a person’s brain.
No other sport has as high a rate of suicide post-retirement as football. No other sport, including the equally violent rugby, has as high a rate of mental illness, drug addiction and early onset Alzheimer’s disease as football.
How football players wind up mostly has to do with concussions sustained during the normal course of play. But if it takes just two seasons in the NFL for players to crack under the mental stress, as it did for Martin, think how much worse a player must feel when he retires after five or 10 years.
We need to stop pretending that just because someone plays football, he automatically has the mental strength to survive behavior that goes well past acceptable teasing and becomes bullying at its most savage. We need to acknowledge that different players have different mental and emotional limits, and those limits often have little or nothing to do with physical talent.
We need to decide that being slightly more sensitive isn’t a flaw to be mercilessly targeted as Incognito targeted Martin.
As long fans and the media and the players continue blaming Martin for all this, players like Incognito will continue believing they can treat others as they please.
And the next time a player cracks beneath a bully like Incognito (or Incognito himself), that player might do far worse than just leave the team.
Contact Matt Goisman at firstname.lastname@example.org.