The Dolphins’ Richie Incognito stands accused of harassing teammate Jonathan Martin. The case, and those who have risen to defend Incognito, expose a seam of masculine insecurity in the 21st century, argues Travis Timmons.
This post is one of those “what we’re talking about when we talk about X” posts. The topic is Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, two offensive lineman on the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. A week ago, chances are you’d never heard of these men. That’s changed.
Across the country, we have a bunch of men talking about “manly stuff,” like toughness, locker rooms, hazing, paying dues, snitching, etc. As for me, well, I’m of two minds—err, mostly one mind—on this topic.
My first thought-impulse is to think that Incognito’s behavior would be utterly ridiculous and shameful in any other professional work culture, like the office. I mean, come on: coerced dinners, Vegas trips, racial slurs, or even the more mundane Jock vs. Smart Kid stuff would be shamed—and rightfully so—in the pluralistic environment that is our work culture. In this context, Incognito himself would be the butt of cultural jokes (starting with his remarkable name). Meanwhile, we’d applaud Martin’s courage to speak up and actually do something—leave the workplace, a dignified response—as our sense of poetic justice hopes for the boom to level Incognito, the loutish goon.
Anything else from Martin, say “challenging” his abuser, would be viewed as the victim going rogue and going barbaric with threats of physical violence (“Incognito, I’ll slap the silly hell outta your doughy-ass face,” etc.). We’d roll our eyes and protest that we live in more enlightened times. Which, in many respects, is true. My point is that if we switch the context of the Incognito/Martin case, our talking points, moral premises, and conclusions are going to look different.
This is mostly my line of thought as I follow the story. However, I’m of a divided mind in this respect: the NFL is not exactly analogous to other business cultures. Sure, the gridiron is “professional”—players collect pay, they’re unionized, they collect benefits, teams have H.R. departments. Whatever. But in other fundamental ways the NFL is so different from your run of the mill blue and white collar jobs.
First, there’s the whole men-bashing-other-men thing. Immense physical violence. Violence. And armor/weapons—oops, I mean pads and helmets—are worn by these men to elevate the violence’s intensity. Plus, you speed all the violence up in the accelerated game that is the contemporary NFL. It’s a terrifying experience, playing football. At least this is how I imagine it. To a large extent, my own imagination runs up against limits trying to imagine the brutally physical, violent, and speedy context that football is played in.
At this point, I think of comparisons others have made between the NFL and military cultures. Indeed, I recall once hearing a U.S. soldier stating in an interview (sorry, I don’t recall where) that NFL players were the other “professionals” he could most relate to, given the intensity of the NFL experience and bonds that take place within the male communities of each team. Of course, this analogy is all the more obvious given the militaristic language and images in which we cloak our football talk.
From what I’ve read and heard, hazing rituals break down and bond the participants in these brutal settings—i.e. hazing is preparatory work for establishing the affective state and communal bond needed to progress through such intense experiences. So I say I’m of a divided mind about the Incognito/Martin case, because I can imagine the two players within this intense context, where the wider social norms do not apply. And we have a mismatch: Incognito is both a product and catalyst of this intense context, while Martin doesn’t seem to fit. At this point, we can question whether or not the culture should change to accommodate the likes of Martin (a conversation worth having), but at the very least we can see how the battle lines are being drawn as we debate the issue.
Given my own personal and broader commitment to equity, access, and empowering the marginalized, I am inclined to side with Martin against Incognito. However, I can also understand what’s motivating Incognito’s behavior as well as the NFL’s broader locker room culture (at least what I presume this culture to be). So I don’t think you can simply dismiss Incognito as a cruel goon (although he’s certainly composed a flattering portrait of his own personal virtue—racist, homophobic, misogynistic, and abusive—from what we’ve seen of his alleged communications with Martin). He’s despicable, but not dismiss-able. I don’t condone his behavior, but am somewhat sympathetic to Incognito sharing intense physical and emotion experiences with other men, and wanting to facilitate the bonds between these men. I can also understand why Martin would be pilloried by other men.
Let me unpack that for a second. Incognito’s behavior—and Martin’s response–taps into larger social/cultural turmoil around manhood, masculine identity, and masculine communities. Like Nietzsche’s abused adage “God is dead,” we have own contemporary adage: “The End of Men.” What is meant by this adage, I think, is that certain implicitly patriarchal systems and their attendant accounts of masculine identity are crumbling. We mostly think about this adage describing economic changes, but it also describes cultural change. The former poses of masculinity (especially the poses that derided the other, such as women, the marginalized, etc.) are becoming taboo. So we have to ask: What does it mean to be a man? To be masculine? To be part of a community of other men?
When I hear men on sports talk radio urgently talking about Incognito and Martin, I also hear these larger questions, lurking like ghosts behind the conversation. The Incognito/Martin conversation is so messy and maddening to me because the men having it are standing on sandy ground to begin with. A ground of scrambled values and identities. Under the words of those who defend Incognito and locker room culture, I hear a nostalgia for the old ways, for the old form of masculinity, for “men who are men,” not snitches. The NFL, and apparently, its locker rooms are outposts for something that is vanishing. Incognito is defended, because, God forbid, the girlie men will take another corner of masculinity away.
But us men are on sandy ground. The Incognito/Martin case and debate reveal that ground, if we stop for a second to look down. Who are we?
A version of this post originally appeared at Sport is Our Story.
Photo: AP/Wilfredo Lee