Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin.
I guarantee that after those two names, five words, you already have strong, visceral feelings about what you’re about to read. You either sympathize with Martin and consider Incognito a racist cretin bully, or you sympathize with Incognito and consider Martin a two-faced pussy.
Nuanced takes on the topic have been few and far between.
There’s the bluster of ex-players and pundits rushing to defend the “integrity” of their game and the moral compass of their locker rooms by assuring us that this type of thing never happened when they played and the thought of a guy using a racial slur and threatening to shit in someone’s mouth is unspeakable and absurd.
Keep in mind that this is a sport in which guys grab nuts and gouge eyes to recover fumbles.
There’s also the bluster of current players rushing to defend the “integrity” of their game by explaining that within the context of an NFL locker room the moral compass manifests in entirely different ways than the public could ever know, with the fantastical extremes of loyalty, trust, and empathy that teammates must have for one another render words such as nigger moot in context.
Keep in mind that this is also a sport with disproportionately depressed men who sometimes kill themselves.
How about this for a take: Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin are both wrong, and both right. They both deserve your sympathy, and both deserve your ire. We should be more interested in the context in which this story takes place.
I totally get why Incognito is blindsided. He’s been in the NFL for nine years, occupying the Kevin Garnett role – teammates love him, everyone else hates him. He’s probably been doing the same thing “bullying”-wise throughout. I’m sure Jonathan Martin isn’t the first guy he’s given a hard time, and I’m sure he’s gotten quite a bit of positive reinforcement along the way (such as, say, his teammates voting him to the leadership council and his coaches asking him to take Martin under his wing).
That being said, if he spent this much time around the guy and really is blindsided, he’s a shitty leader.
I do feel bad for Martin – the guy has real mental issues and is brave enough to flout the macho-bullshit culture of the NFL and go get help. But then again, is the macho-bullshit culture really bullshit? Keep in mind the ridiculously extreme pain and suffering that these guys willingly go through. If telling yourself that you’re the manliest man in a man’s world allows you to get through it, I’m not going to tell you it’s wrong.
Something we all have to admit: there’s validity to the idea that some people are not cut out for the NFL. And if Martin realized he was one of those people, making a quiet exit without dragging down his non-Incognito teammates seems like the more mature option.
Is it irrelevant that those teammates have almost universally supported Incognito? No. Is it irrelevant that smart people outside of football with a bird’s eye view have almost universally supported Martin? No. But we’d all be better off if we considered that professional football and the lifestyles of its players are fucked way beyond “bullying.”
Featured image courtesy of CBS Sports