At least not in the way the NFL’s report on bullying in the Miami Dolphins’ locker room would seem to suggest. For all of their detailed description of the harassment Jonathan Martin endured, investigators still placed that behavior within a framework of stereotype that fosters it.
There is an old saying of journalism that reporters write the rough draft of history. It has also become a common newspeak cliche to talk about the 24/7 news cycle. In this climate of constant news mongering stories are broken, covered to exhaustion, and then discarded so quickly that, like Chinese takeout, we’re hungry again for a new story 10 minutes later.
Under these circumstances, there is immense pressure for writers (I can’t really call myself a reporter) to comment on events as quickly as possible, before we’ve had time to consider the context or tease out the full implications of what’s happened, before, sometimes, we even have all the facts. The result is that the narratives we comment on become too narrowly dialectical, as nuance, the gray areas where truth usually resides, gets washed away.
This is as true in the world of sports as it is of, say, politics. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen the rush to comment on everything from Chris Kluwe’s letter accusing the Minnesota Vikings of cutting him for his outspoken view on gay marriage to Richard Sherman’s postgame interview after the NFC Championship to Michael Sam coming out to, just yesterday, the revelation that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell earned an obscene $44 million in 2012.
In the rush to judgment, detractors pointed out that Chris Kluwe was a mediocre punter, called Richard Sherman a thug, and argued that NFL locker rooms weren’t ready for an openly gay player and that, because he came out, Sam’s stock would fall in the draft this spring. Defenders ignored Kluwe’s stats and minimum guaranteed salary, arguing instead that his free speech rights had clearly been infringed upon, pointed out the Sherman had been an excellent student who attended one of this country’s most presitigious universities and that labelling him a thug was to engage in coded racial discourse, and that, to paraphrase Vice President Joe Biden, Sam’s coming out was a big fucking deal.
Before these diametrical viewpoints could be examined with any real thought, though, we’d moved on. So it is refreshing in a way to read the report released yesterday by NFL investigators hired to look into an earlier hot button issue that had faded from focus: Richie Incognito’s bullying of Jonathan Martin.
First, you will notice that I did not use the word alleged as a modifier to describe Incognito’s bullying. Though, legally speaking, the incidents of bullying remain only alleged, it is unlikely that any judicial proceedings, criminal or civil, will stem directly from them. (It does not appear Martin will press charges against Incognito or any of his teammates or sue the Dolphins for allowing a workplace culture detrimental to his mental health.) Moreover, the report released yesterday is so thorough in its cataloguing of the insults hurled at Martin (as well as at another of the team’s offensive linemen and at an assistant trainer) both verbally and via text message that there can be no doubt about what happended: Richie Incognito and two other teammates engaged in the systematic bullying of Jonathan Martin.
When the story originally broke last fall, there were any number of people on Twitter and in the comment sections of news articles and op-eds who were more than willing to either defend Incognito or to try to slow the rush to judgment by saying we didn’t yet know all the facts. That is precisely what makes yesterday’s report so refreshing: we now have the cataloguing of the facts we need to make judgments. So, that being said, here are some:
1) Whether Richie Incognito deserves a lifetime ban from the NFL, as at least one writer has suggested, I don’t know. What I do know is that any NFL team worth its salt will never sign Incognito again. There are many adjectives we can use to describe what Incognito did to Jonathan Martin—disgusting, repugnant, immature—but the one that may ultimately sink Incognito’s future employment is unprofessional.
One of the ironies of the NFL is that, despite being an extremely violent league, it is also the most professional of the major sports leagues in this country, perhaps of any competitive sports league in the world. Almost uniformly, the franchises that have been the most consistently successful over the last 10 to 15 years have been those that place a premium on professionalism—the Patriots, the Colts, the Packers, the Steelers. One cannot imagine Bill Belichick or Mike Tomlin ever not knowing about, never mind allowing, what was going on in the Dolphins locker room.
As discussed here on The Good Men Project, one of the keys to the Seahawks Super Bowl win this year was coach Peter Carroll’s philosophy of infusing his team and locker room with the “positive energy, resources, and support they need to succeed.” I wonder if that would include giving free rein to veterans so that they can terrorize their younger teammates.
2) Perceptions of what it means to be a man in an NFL locker room need to shift. As Travis Timmons discussed when this story originally broke last fall, what lies, as much as anything, at the heart of it is the question of how to be not just a man, but a man’s man, in the 21st century.
Following so quickly upon the heels of Michael Sam’s announcement that he is gay, yesterday’s report is going to force a lot of reassessment in NFL locker rooms, as it should. Yet, do not expect the NFL to become a bastion of political correctness over night. Change, as it usually does, will come incrementally and, often, contradictorily.
Herm Edwards is a perfect example. After Michael Sam came out, the former coach and now commentator said he wasn’t sure the NFL was ready for openly gay players, that they would create problems in the locker room, because, the quote he used, was they would be “bringing baggage” with them into it. But then yesterday, in a New York Times story about the Dolphins report, he expressed surprise that the Dolphins’ coaches were unaware of what was going on and didn’t step in to intervene, apparently unaware himself of the contradiction in his two statements. Either a coach can control his team’s locker room, as he would seem to suggest in his reaction to yesterday’s report, or he can’t, as he seemed to indicate in reaction to Michael Sam’s announcement. I suspect he won’t be the only coach who will tell you that unprofessional behavior is not accepted in his locker room, but is then unsure whether calling someone a fag constitutes unprofessional behavior.
3) Boys do not have to be boys. I say that to be cheekily provocative. Though the report is comprehensive, and certainly does not pull punches when it comes to describing what took place, it then pulls up short when offering recommendations about how to ensure that no future players will have to endure what Jonathan Martin did.
From the report itself: “We encourage the creation of new workplace conduct rules and guidelines that will help ensure that players respect each other as professionals and people.” That’s pretty tepid HR speak if I’ve ever heard it. Further, as the New York Times reported, “The investigators seemed to accept the notion of locker-room behavior as boys being boys. . .”
But that is to define being a boy in only one way. I’ve known plenty of boys who liked playing chess or Dungeons & Dragons or pursuing any number of other interests. Would the report’s authors not have concluded that they were boys being boys? Now, one may argue that the types of boys who grow up to play in the NFL were not likely to be big D&D fans (more’s the pity) and so that, within the context of an NFL locker room, the description is not inaccurate, but that’s precisely the point.
Jonathan Martin is a smart, sensitive young man who also happens to be a very good football player. He didn’t want to engage in aggressive locker room antics, of which Richie Incognito was the ringleader. Are the report’s authors implying that Jonathan Martin wasn’t being a boy? Because that would be to traffic in the very same stereotype that Incognito and his fellow tormentors trafficked in when they targeted Martin for harassment.
Photo: Lynne Sladky/AP