Sports

02.15.14

Richie Incognito and the NFL's Nasty Warrior Culture

In both word and deed, pro football serves as a culturally sanctioned knockoff of the military. Until we face that fact, we’ll never understand why players think brutal abuse is normal.

This is a story about two football players. They are both massive physical specimens that ply their trade on the offensive line, which means they get paid to slam into other, even more gravitational pull-altering 300-plus-pound human beings 70-odd times over a 60-minute game.

They are Jonathan Martin, a foundering, subpar offensive lineman and former second round pick and Richie Incognito, a team leader and lynchpin on that same unit. They both play for the Miami Dolphins. Or rather, they used to. After a series of incidents, ostensibly intended to improve Martin’s play, that at best can be described as “hazing” and at worst, and probably more accurately as menacing, extortion and bullying, leading Martin to contemplate suicide, both of their futures in the profession are in doubt.  

Last October 28, after a cafeteria room prank, Martin abruptly left the team. Soon after, Incognito’s bullying became public knowledge. But the real story is about football itself, and what the very nature of the sport asks of the people that play it, and what kinds of behavior we might arise as a result.

On Friday, the results of the NFL’s 144-page investigative report were released, stating that Martin and a still-unidentified Player A were the victims of a “pattern of harassment”; inflicted by incognito along with fellow linemen Mike Pouncey and John Jerry.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of partaking of this particularly rancid brand of locker room bonhomie and team-building, here’s a transcription of one of the thousands of phone message Incognito left for Martin. Have your earmuffs at the ready:

Hey, wassup, you half-nigger piece of shit. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] shit in your fucking mouth. [I'm going to] slap your fucking mouth. [I'm going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. Fuck you, you're still a rookie. I'll kill you. 

Anyone looking from the outside would and should state that this is an example of a bigoted, homophobic, sexist macho culture run amok—a confirmation of every negative stereotype of athletes and what occurs in locker rooms when the cameras are gone. If you think that sports are the last bastion of an archaic, retrograde, chauvinistic society, well, this is exactly what you’d expect to hear.

The report determined that those in positions of responsibility and authority had no idea this was occurring, specifically in the chapter titled “Coach Philbin and the Front Office Did Not Know About the Harassment.” Of course, when an industry investigates itself, you can pretty much guarantee that they’ll label this an isolated incident and the work of a few bad apples, rather than a systemic problem.

The football-as-war theme isn’t just a slick marketing package. It’s a reality for the people that do this for a living.

Whether the orders came from above or this was a decision made by the team collectively, what occurred in that locker room was a part and parcel of the desire within this closed society to solve a particular problem: in order for this team to realize its potential—to eliminate the possibility that one missed block would transform what looked like a beautiful 60-yard bomb to a flanker streaking past the secondary into a crushing sack of the quarterback by a blitzing safety—the weak link (Martin) needed to either be toughened up or driven to leave. In either case, the problem would be solved.

That mindset—that the needs of any individual must and will always be subsumed to that of the unit or team, and that weakness (especially emotional weakness such as the kind evinced by Martin) cannot and will not be tolerated—is a bad copy of what is demanded by the military. 

Which is not an accident: the NFL is massively profitable, multi-billion dollar “non-profit” industry that has consciously chosen to brand itself as a socially acceptable substitute for actual combat. The language used to describe action on the field is indistinguishable from and frequently interchangeable with military jargon, as in the fictional pass play described above: a 100 yard-long version of the Stars and Stripes is unfurled before kickoff, the Blue Angels are practically de rigeur, and a tepid midseason game between middling-to-shoddy teams is deemed an apocalyptic clash of civilizations. 

The football-as-war theme isn’t just a slick marketing package. It’s a reality for the people that do this for a living. Football players think of themselves as warriors, solders, and gladiators, and so on. Football coaches see themselves as generals—as leaders and shapers of men, devisers of grand stratagems resulting in golden laurels and glory.

Football is not war, but to a certain degree, they’re right. Playing in the NFL for an extended period of time is going to get many of them killed, crippled, or permanently disabled, whether that’s due to Chronic Traumatic Encephalitis, early onset arthritis, or a myriad of other chronic physical ailments that they’ll incur as a result of playing the game. There’s an ever-mounting list of suicides that have been attributed to brain damage: Dave Duerson, Andre Waters, Jovan Belcher, Junior Seau, and on and on. Though the NFL does everything in its power to cover up the fact, there’s no sugarcoating it: football is a meat grinder.

So if football players are risking their bodies and minds within the context of a militaristic culture, we shouldn’t be clutching our pearls in abject horror if they start behaving like soldiers, or any other enclosed group that’s sequestered from the rest of what we call “normal” society and feels they’re being trained to fight for their lives and the lives of others.

Military code specifically prohibits hazing for any reason, whether it’s to “toughen up” a subpar soldier or as a demented exercise in camaraderie building. But there's a difference between hazing, like the kind of activities Incognito engaged in, and “training” or reforming a member of a unit that is weak or considered a “fuck up.” That happens in football. It also happens in the military. 

Jason Christopher Hartley, a veteran who served in Iraq and authored the novel Just Another Soldier, confirmed that hazing or bullying of any kind was strictly forbidden, but said, “There are certain practices or things that are really a pretty standard part of military culture. And then there’s stuff that people do that get creative. Where they make up fucked-up stuff for people to do. It’s ostensibly in the name of bonding or cohesion or someone, but it at some point it gets off track and it’s just fucked up and that’s all there is to it. ... You always have one person will push the envelope and that’s where you have a situation like this”

He added, “You have a guy who’s weak, you’re going to pick on him. They takes the beating that they’re gonna get, or it strengthens them or they can’t take it and he gets out. Either way, the unit wins. ... And what might seem hilarious from the inside seems totally fucked up when you tell it.”

“Say you’re in boot camp and there’s some Private that spits a lot because he thinks it’s cool, and the Drill Sergeant catches him spitting says, ‘pick it up.’ He’ll say, “How am I supposed to pick that up Drill Sergeant?’ ‘Grab that whole fistful of sand and put it in your pocket. It came out of your body, so its yours!’”

“Maybe he’s humiliated, but for the rest of his life it’s this hilarious fucking story about how he walked around all day with sand in his pocket. … We point fingers at military and sports teams but take any group of human beings doing any given activity, the all do it. In an office, someone has to be that person. It would be so easy to point fingers, to call these people monsters and we’d be right, but put any person in the exact same circumstances, nine out of ten would do the same shit.” 

None of this makes what Incognito and the Dolphins did any less reprehensible. I’m neither excusing nor justifying the behavior of any of the characters in this brutish playlet. But we can state that what occurred was abhorrent, and at the same time endeavor to understand the circumstances in which they arose and the ways in which we as fans and consumers are complicit?

*** 

Obviously, the NFL isn’t going away any time soon. Given the profits, that’s a non-starter to a non-conversation. There will be an attempt to enforce a code of conduct by the league, and possibly further fines and suspensions, similar to how they dealt with the revelations that the New Orleans Saints had a system of bounties in place.

According to Dave Zirin of The Nation, “Every NFL player I’ve has told me that this Dolphins shit-show is an outlier. Every NFL player I’ve interviewed has told me that they have never heard the kind of invective Jonathan Martin and others were subjected to. Every NFL player I’ve interviewed has said this is utterly unique.”

If he’s right, that’s a good thing. It’s also possible that players are starting to close ranks to protect the product. 

As a nation, we do require the armed forces. That’s not up for debate. But just as we should ask what damage is being wrought upon the people who serve in the armed forces, we need to ask what playing pro football does to the people who play it. And if those damages, both to their bodies and their minds, is enough to make us as a society consider whether we want to continue to support it.

Because the circumstances that led to Incognito bullying Martin—driving him to the point where he considered suicide—aren’t going to change. If a line was crossed, we’re still at a place where a certain amount of “training” that might include racial, sexual and homophobic invectives are a part of this incredibly violent, damaging sport. That’s not a condemnation of football players or any athlete. That’s a reflection of where we are as human beings, specifically human beings performing a very dangerous task that still possess tribal and clannish biases.

Things are, however, getting better. There will be an openly gay player in the league next season. We will get a drastic reduction in the number of coaches that think they’re the direct descendants of Curtis LeMay, but unless we can find a way to keep players from getting ground into chum over the course of a career, the problem remains. The line that Incognito crossed will move, but in the closed world the locker room there will be a line and behavior that those of us on the outside can’t really understand. It’s why former and current players came to Incognito’s defense when the story broke, and why Incognito still, today, maintains his innocence. 

It’s all a part of the game.