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Incognito and Bullying in the NFL

Richie Incognito photo by June Rivera, from wikimedia commons

Richie Incognito
photo by June Rivera, from wikimedia commons

For many years, I’ve been told that as a man, I can’t hold a valid opinion on abortion or birth control. Now not all women hold that opinion, but enough of them do, which makes it a familiar refrain to every male who dares to express a pro life position.

So I’m going to turn it around for a moment and say that unless you are a professional offensive lineman in the NFL and fully familiar with locker room activities, then you do not have the experience to judge the events occurring with the Miami Dolphins. If you are a woman, or a man whose sporting experience is limited to sand lot baseball, then you do not have the background to understand the locker room mentality.

Now I’m not saying what Incognito said was right or wrong here; I’ll deal with that in a minute. Right now I’m just pointing out that sometimes, we are too quick to judge situations where we do not know the full context, and that our experiences will color how we make those judgements.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, over the last several days, the NFL has been dealing with a bullying scandal centered around the Miami Dolphins, and two offensive lineman, Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. Martin walked off the team and hired a lawyer, and claimed that he was being bullied and harassed by multiple teammates, with Incognito getting the brunt of the blame. Voicemails have surfaced where Incognito uses the ‘n’ word to Martin, among other offensive statements. As the story grew, the instant assumption was that Incognito was a racist thug who was picking on Martin unmercifully.

Then the story began to evolve. Incognito’s teammates rallied around him instead of Martin. According to a story in Sports Illustrated, Incognito was considered an ‘honorary black man.’ And in the Fox story referenced earlier, Incognito gave the reporter his cell phone and allowed him to make a transcript of all texts between himself and Martin, and the transcript shows that Martin gave as good as he got. Even more interesting is that four days after leaving the team and launching his complaints, Martin sent a friendly text to Incognito, telling him that he didn’t blame Incognito or any player, saying that the culture of pro football and the locker room got to him.

So, what do we make of all of this? Is there a culture of hazing in the NFL? Is it a problem? Did Incognito go too far? Is Martin a whiner? Is it possible to ‘bully’ a 300 lb NFL lineman? Does any of this have any relevance outside the very small community of professional football players?

I’ll give you my answers; feel free to disagree in the comments.

First, without any doubt, Incognito’s texts and voice mails, along with his treatment of Martin, were totally out of bounds in a polite, civilized society. That said, football players, particularly in the locker room, are not known for being polite or civilized. This goes double for lineman. These 300 lb alpha males are built, trained, and acclimated to one thing, dominating another man through the application of brute force and skill. Their job, their livelihood, rests on their ability to impose their will on another man. And it isn’t just guys on the other team; they are in competition with their teammates for playing time. Their ability to support their family is dependent on their ability to assert themselves physically and mentally. We also have to add the team dynamic into the mix because the team as a whole depends on the performance of each member, and any weakness by any one individual weakens the team as a whole.

It’s one downside to submerging your individuality into a group dynamic; another man’s weakness becomes your own. Put into a more concrete form, if my paycheck depends in part on your performance, I’m going to be very interested in making sure you perform to the highest level possible.

That’s just part of the deal.

But there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed. My interest in your performance should not cross the line into actual abuse. The problem is defining where the line is drawn. It really depends on the context, or culture. For example, if a 5th grade teacher spoke to her students the way my Navy boot camp Company Commander spoke to me, that teacher would be fired in a heartbeat and rightfully so. BTC Flugg, the CC in question, could make you feel 2 inches tall and utterly incompetent without ever raising his voice or using any profanity or obscenity. It was a skill I personally admired until it was turned on me, at which point it made me determined to prove that bleeping son of a bleep wrong.

Which was, of course, exactly the result he intended.

In the context of boot camp, his method of communication was not abusive in any way; it was an effective tool to mold his company of civilian recruits into a unified group of sailors. However, in the context of a classroom of 11 year old kids, it would be horrific.

So let’s go back into the NFL locker room. Was Incognito’s vocabulary abusive or out of line? According to his team mates, and apparently, even Martin, it was not. I’ve never been in an NFL locker room, but I know that even in a high school locker room, the language was salty, and often vile. I can only imagine how that atmosphere would escalate at the stakes got higher in college, then again in the NFL, so it doesn’t really surprise me that the language shown in the tests and voice mails is used.

It offends me, but doesn’t surprise me. And to be honest, within the confines of the NFL, I don’t think it is a problem. Within the subculture of professional offensive linemen, this behavior is not only to be expected, it is required. It isn’t pretty, decent, or civilized, but then again, neither is the job. The only problem comes when the behavior leaks over from the professional life into the personal, and that, in my opinion, is what happened here. Incognito indirectly involved Martin’s family, and moved the exchanges outside of the locker room and off the practice field.

And that is a problem and the NFL and the Dolphins will have to deal with that.

But is there anything we can learn from this that applies to our kids and organized sports? Obviously, our kids are not calling each other up and ripping into them like Incognito did Martin, but there is plenty of trash talk even in the youth leagues, and much of it is tacitly or explicitly encouraged by coaches.

I am involved in the youth and high school football programs locally, and I’ve seen several examples of this taking place.  In one relatively mild case, a youth league team’s boosters wore T-shirts with the slogan, “We bust ours so we can kick yours!” That’s not the message you really want to send, is it? Yes, football is a competitive game with winners and losers, but there’s a difference between working to win and working to kick somebody’s bleep.

It just sets the wrong tone.

In a more egregious example, during a middle school game, the home team had to forfeit due to injuries. One of their players was hit hard, and suffered a possible neck injury. While the ambulance was coming out onto the field, the visiting coach decided to hold a practice on the home team’s game field. He told his players that since the home team hadn’t been able to put up enough of a fight, they might as well get a practice in. It was the only time I’ve ever witnessed visiting team parents apologizing for their coach’s behavior. After the injured player had been carted off the field (He was okay; no spinal injury) the visiting team got on their bus to go home. As the bus left, with the coach riding in front, the players yelled obscenities and taunts out the windows.

I see things like that more often than I’d like, and I believe it leads directly to cases of excess like Incognito’s.

So what do we do?

Team sports represent a fine balance of competition and cooperation. When that balance shifts too far towards cooperation, we get meaningless exercise followed by unearned rewards with no real sense of achievement. On the other hand, shifting too far towards competition gives us Incognito. How do we maintain a proper balance? I think it is up to us as parents to do it. Not the coaches, not the school or youth program administrators, but the parents. In the middle school story I told earlier, the team parents complained to the school, and that coach was let go at the end of the season. They took responsibility for the behavior of their team and they took steps to manage it. To me, the important thing here was not the removal of the coach, it was the kids seeing their parents take action to correct an imbalance. That did more to teach them the meaning of sportsmanship than anything else could.

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