Michael Kasdan delves into the Investigative Report of the Incognito- Martin bullying incident and concludes it’s time to clean up the NFL locker-rooms.
One of the most profoundly troubling sports-related stories of the year has been the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin story, in which Incognito, the Dolphin’s offensive lineman, bullied and caused so much emotional distress in his teammate Martin that Martin left the team, and even contemplated suicide. The recently published investigative report into the incident has provided a window into the Dolphin’s locker-room and inner sanctum. And its not pretty.
Last week, the New York Times reported on the release of that Investigative Report in its article, “A Classic Case of Bullying on the Dolphins.” According to the Times, “the life of players was depicted in extraordinary and often unseemly detail, evoking ‘Lord of the Flies’ more than the highlight shows that saturate autumn Sundays.”
I read the Report. All 144 pages of it. (And reading the New York Times account—or any brief summary—doesn’t even do justice in explaining the kind of behavior that is going on in NFL locker-rooms or how unacceptable it is. For more on the details of this behavior, keep on reading below.)
One thing that is crystal clear from this report is that Richie Incognito is not a very nice person. He comes off as a world class jerk, to say the very least. But this is a far bigger issue that one bad apple. Because if you believe that this is an isolated incident with a few players on the Dolphins, you’ve got another thing coming.
What happened in that locker room is on the one hand unsurprising, precisely because we expect that kind of behavior from professional athletes. On the other hand, it is disgusting and shocking.
What’s also interesting is how odd I feel coming out as critical of this culture. That’s the story within the story here.
We feel uncomfortable even questioning what is going on inside the locker room. We haven’t. And we don’t.
Because we’ve been conditioned to accept that part and parcel of masculinity and toughness—and the NFL is the pinnacle of macho toughness—is behavior like this.
As David Zirin put so well in a recent article on the NFL:
So many players in the league are caught in what former Baltimore Colt Joe Ehrmann has called “the man box.” This is the locker room ideology that preaches, “Bullies are heroes; pain—physical or mental—is for wimps; and women are either ‘road beef’ or collateral damage.” We just received a first hand look, thanks to Richie Incognito and the Miami Dolphins, of what the “man box” looks like when the sportswriter’s romantic prose is stripped away, and it’s ugly as sin.
Enough with encouraging, tolerating, or even condoning this ugliness.
Notably, the New York Times article observed that “The investigators seemed to accept the notion of locker-room behavior as boys being boys, writing that they recognize that “’the communications of young, brash, highly competitive football players often are vulgar and aggressive.’” The Investigative Report concluded that even taking into account this reality, the behavior on the Dolphins crossed way over the line into bullying and harassment. They sure came to the right conclusion.
But let’s take a hard look at the investigator’s assumption, because that in and of itself is disturbing. It’s what we accept:
“We also understand that context matters. We accept that the communications of young, brash, highly competitive football players often are vulgar and aggressive, and that these players never expected their private communications with each other to be made public. We did not approach this assignment expecting to discover behavior that society might anticipate in, say, an accounting firm or a law office. For better or worse, profanity is an accepted fact of life in competitive sports, and professional athletes commonly indulge in conduct inappropriate in other social settings. We also recognize that good-spirited goading often contributes to team bonding.”
It would be best if we would seriously question that assumption. It’s what needs to be examined and challenged. It’s what has allowed us to say that joking about raping someone’s sister or levying racist remarks at co-workers wouldn’t be acceptable in an accounting firm, but hey, this is the NFL? So, what the heck. Let’s write it off as a team bonding thing. It’s “boys being boys.” It’s alpha males exhibiting their masculinity and toughness.
The locker-room and inner circle of the teams has always been considered to be an untouchable bastion where men can and should act this way.
But the behavior described in the report is that of overgrown frat boys who have never been forced to grow up or treat anyone with dignity.
Apparently, being a boorish, gay-bashing, sister and mother insulting, racist, mean asshole is a completely accepted behavior in sports locker rooms. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t make the team better. It doesn’t make you a better player. And it’s demeaning behavior that we don’t accept in other contexts. So why on earth do we take it as a given and accept it in this context? It’s simply not acceptable behavior, and it reinforces the concept that these athletes—who grew up coddled and have been fawned over their whole life—are somehow above acting like human beings. Why? Because they are athletes?
I’m not quite sure why these guys can show up for work and have this be considered to be acceptable. No one reigns them in. No one says: what the hell are you doing? No one says, this is not acceptable on this team, in this work-place.
To truly understand the extent of the insensitive emotional abusive crap that goes on in locker-rooms, you have to read the actual factual findings of the Report. The Report begins with an summary of key findings and conclusions, and warns that the language is raw and vulgar. It is. (Be forewarned that the language reproduced from the Report below is likewise raw and vulgar.)
The first thing that is discussed is a notebook that Incognito used to keep track of “fines” and “bonuses,” in which Martin was penalized for acting “like a pussy” and others were rewarded for not cracking before Martin. Incognito himself awarded himself notoriety (and levied a small fine) in the notebook for “breaking” Jonathan Martin:
“Moreover, shortly after Martin left the team, Incognito made a number of telling entries in a notebook used to keep track of “fines” the offensive linemen imposed on each other in their “kangaroo court” (typically for trivial infractions such as arriving late to meetings). Incognito recorded a $200 fine against himself for “breaking Jmart,” awarded another lineman who had been verbally taunted a $250 bonus for “not cracking first,” and wrote down a number of penalties against Martin for acting like a “pussy.” The evidence shows, and Incognito did not dispute, that “breaking Jmart” meant causing Martin to have an emotional reaction in response to taunting.”
The Report goes on to describe extreme verbal abuse in which three of Martin’s teammates made graphic sexual jokes about Martin’s sister:
The evidence supports a finding that Incognito, Jerry and Pouncey repeatedly and persistently made graphic, sexually explicit comments about Martin’s sister, a medical student whom they had never met. Four fairly typical examples of the types of insults made orally, according to Martin, are:
“We are going to run train on your sister. She loves me. I’m going to fuck her without a condom and cum in her cunt.”
“Hey, Jmart’s sister is in town. Get the plastic sheets ready, she’s a squirter.”
“I’m going to bang the shit out of her and spit on her and treat her like shit.”
“Hear your sister has a wolf-puss. A fat, hairy pussy.”
As if emotional abuse and making graphical sexual comments about Martin’s sister were not enough, there were also blatantly racist insults:
On April 6, 2013, Incognito left the following voicemail message for Martin:
“Hey, wassup, you half-nigger piece of shit. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. I’ll shit in your fuckin’ mouth. I’m gonna slap your fuckin’ mouth, I’m gonna slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. Fuck you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”
The comments, Martin said, included jokes about slavery, and he claimed that Incognito called him a “nigger” to his face at the restaurant. Incognito also insulted Martin in person and in text messages with other racially charged language, including referring to Martin as a “liberal mulatto bitch,” “stinky Pakistani,” “shine box” and “darkness.”
. . .
We found that the Assistant Trainer, who was born in Japan, was the target of frequent and persistent harassment, including insults relating to his race and national origin. Incognito, Jerry and Pouncey admitted that they directed racially derogatory words toward him, including “Jap” and “Chinaman.” At times, according to Martin, they referred to the Assistant Trainer as a “dirty communist” or a “North Korean,” made demands such as “give me some water you fucking chink,” spoke to him in a phony, mocking Asian accent, including asking for “rubby rubby sucky sucky,” and called his mother a “rub and tug masseuse.”
There was also a fair share of disgusting sexual taunting, including mock homosexual insults:
Player A was a Dolphins offensive lineman. Like Martin, he is quiet and unassuming. During his time with the team, Incognito, Jerry and Pouncey frequently taunted Player A with homophobic insults. He often was called a “fag” or a “faggot” in a demeaning tone. Incognito reportedly accused him of “sucking dick” and “pissing while sitting down” and asked him “where’s your boyfriend?” . . . In addition, Incognito and others acknowledged that Player A was routinely touched by Incognito, Jerry and Pouncey in a mockingly suggestive manner, including on his rear end, while being taunted about his supposed homosexuality . . . Martin said that on one particularly disturbing occasion, Pouncey physically restrained Player A, and, in full view of other players, jokingly told Jerry to “come get some pussy,” and that Jerry responded by touching Player A’s buttocks in a way that simulated anal penetration.
Dolphins’ Offensive Line Coach Jim Turner was aware of the running “joke” that Player A was gay, and on at least one occasion, he participated in the taunting. Around Christmas 2012, Coach Turner gave the offensive linemen gift bags that included a variety of stocking stuffers. The gifts included inflatable female dolls for all of the offensive linemen except Player A, who received a male “blow-up” doll.
The excuses that were raised are what we would expect. Indeed, they are the excuses that we have been buying into all this time: It’s “boys being boys.” It’s part of the camaraderie of guys to speak and treat each other this way. It’s good for bonding:
From Incognito’s perspective, however, the statements in question were an accepted part of the everyday camaraderie of the Dolphins tight-knit offensive line.
Incognito and most of the other offensive linemen claimed that the treatment of Martin and others was all in good fun, part of everyday joking and brotherly bonding that was a known and accepted part of life on the Dolphins, at least on the offensive line.
Another justification that Incognito offered was that the Dolphins offensive linemen routinely communicated and behaved in a profane manner, such that the line defining what amounted to unacceptable or hurtful insults may have become blurred.
Each of these excuses were rejected by the investigator. He found that “the freewheeling, “anything goes” atmosphere characterized much of the Dolphins offensive line culture” simply did not justify what happened to Jonathan Martin.
We shouldn’t and can’t accept these excuses—or any of these behaviors—in the larger sense either. There is no justification for it.
To ignore or condone this kind of behavior—emotional abuse, verbal abuse, and racist and homophobic taunting—is to bless it.
And if those alpha male athletes we watch and admire—rightly or wrongly—go on with this behavior unquestioned, it undermines what we are trying to teach and practice in society and to our children.
Bullies are not heroes. Whether they are in an NFL locker-room or a schoolyard playground.
Treating women as sexual objects does not display masculinity.
Being in pain—physical or mental—does not mean you are a wimp or weakling.
And causing that pain in others doesn’t mean you are strong.
Time to clean it up.
Photo Credit: Associated Press/Tom DiPace