Like everyone else in America, my football Sunday was rudely interrupted by the “revealing” Richie Incognito “I’m not a racist” interview that was aired endlessly and annoyingly debated throughout NFL games. For me, there were two main takeaways – Incognito is a meathead jock who’s playing a game of save the bacon, and the NFL has a much larger problem on its hands than the allegations of two of its players.
For those not up to speed, Miami Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin left the team November 2 and notified the NFL about a series of alleged incidents that caused him to suffer emotional distress. Reporting on Incognito’s roll soon followed, which revealed numerous text messages and voicemail’s making alleged threats against both Martin and his family (Incognito laughably claimed his “half-n—er piece of s–t” message was “coming from a place of love”).
At this point, it’s hard to gain any definitive insight on the incident, since Martin’s teammates have all lined up in defense of Incognito. At this moment, until the NFL completes its investigation, this will continue to spiral out of control into more “he said, he said” arguments and half-truths.
What is clear watching the coverage of this ugly business unfold is the insular nature of the NFL locker room, and the defense of the horrible things that go on there by a coterie of good-old boy ex-players and jock-sniffing journalists, who would rather defend the status quo of bad behavior and obscene intolerance than confront the fact that these are professional multimillionaires paid to be entertainers, not bullies.
If you hear analysts tell it, things are just different in an NFL locker room. I mean, these guys are beasts and world destroyers – how can you expect them not to use racial epithets or force each other into threatening situations?
The most uncomfortable aspect to me has been the apparent willingness of reporters and former teammates to completely turn on the perceived victim and paint him as less-than-tough and incapable of handing what others see as the status-quo. Martin went to Stanford, and in certain corners of the NFL, so-called “smart guys” can be perceived as not being tough enough. Tyson Clabo, a teammate of Martin, publicly backed Incognito while saying Martin needed to act like a man.
Doesn’t that sound like something a bully would say? After all, Incognito’s public relations press conference on Sunday seemed less like an innocent man making an honest case than a loud-mouth jock trying to get out of trouble with the school principal.
To me, this issue of the unruly locker room sort-of parallells the issue of head injuries. For years, the NFL dragged its feet about the potential danger the game’s bone-crushing hits had on long-term health, until a rash of injuries and a handful of high-profile deaths forced them to switch course and enact changes that, while unpopular with some fans, at least are an honest attempt to mitigate an enormous issue within a game that generates billions of dollars.
The NFL has another opportunity to do something similar with the knuckle-dragging culture that has apparently been allowed to fester within NFL locker rooms. As FOX Sports Jen Engle notes, the blame doesn’t end with Incognito – it seems embedded in the entire culture of the team, starting with Martin’s teammates who stood by idly and let the intimidation continue, right on up to head coach Joe Philbin, who apparently condones this sort-of macho tough-guy behavior. Even General Manager Jeff Ireland is in on the act, after suggesting to Martin’s agent that the best way to solve this issue was to get Martin to punch Incognito in the face.
Good to know the latest thinking on how to run an NFL franchise come from the “Code of Hammurabi.”
If you go by statistics alone, there are probably numerous gay football players right now in the NFL. Is it okay that they’re forced to stay quiet about their sexuality for fear of being bullied and taunted by their teammates? If Jason Collins was a football player, and he quit the team because he claims he was bullied, would his teammates and reporters turn on him as fast as they’ve turned on Martin and claim he’s just not tough enough for an NFL locker room?
It’s time for the NFL to step in and create the accountability that apparently some head coaches and general managers have been unwilling to do. There are enough reasons now for parents not to let their kids play football. Does the NFL really need to add bullying, hazing and intimidation to that list? After all, it’s just a game.
Rob Tornoe is a political cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. Follow Rob on Twitter @RobTornoe, and check out more of his work at RobTornoe.com