Bullies, Victims, and Masculinity

The Richie Incognito story is about more than just locker-room culture. It’s about how traditional masculinity sets poor men up for victimization by rich men.

Maybe I should eavesdrop more, but I seldom hear people in bars and restaurants talking about news stories … unless those stories have something to do with sports. A few weeks ago, I heard three guys at a bar talking about how silly it would be to change the name of the Washington Redskins. And Thursday night, a couple in a Thai restaurant were talking about the Richie Incognito bullying story.

We have a lot more speculation than facts about Incognito, but this much seems to be true: Miami Dolphins’ offensive tackle Jonathan Martin left the team October 28 for “emotional” reasons, and briefly checked into a hospital before going to California to stay with his parents. A few days later, fellow Dolphin lineman Richie Incognito was identified as the center of an ongoing harassment of Martin. Apparently it started last year, when Martin joined the team, as ordinary hazing of a rookie. But unlike most NFL rookies, Martin also appears to be a loner and a misfit in jock society. Perhaps his relatively upscale, intellectual childhood (both Martin’s parents are lawyers) was part of why teammates called him “Big Weirdo“. Incognito was suspended indefinitely after ESPN learned about a voicemail in which Incognito called the mixed-race Martin “a half-nigger piece of shit”.

Incognito claims that he had a good relationship with Martin, and that Martin knew the voicemail was a joke. His teammates more-or-less back him up, but The Nation’s Dave Zirin discounts that as “bully solidarity“. ESPN’s Adam Schefter (a former player) commented:

This is not about a football locker room mentality. This is about the right behavior in a workplace environment where people feel safe.

Whatever the facts turn out to be, the story has stirred up a wide-ranging discussion about the N-word (which I’m going to pass over) and about masculinity. To some people (like Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor) it’s obvious that Martin should have punched Incognito in the face, and that would have been the end of it. Martin is 6’5″ and over 300 pounds, so (according to this point of view) he should be able to take care of himself. By instead making this issue public, he has violated the code of the locker room and hurt his team and teammates.

The resemblance to the keep-it-in-the-family view of child abuse or domestic violence (in my opinion) is more than coincidental.

Implicit in the criticism of Martin is the idea that there’s only one acceptable way to be a man, and being shy or non-confrontational is not part of it. Also, that a professional sports team is not just a workplace, it is a culture that only certain kinds of people can join. That seems to be the point of view of a rather disjointed defense of Incognito by former player Nate Jackson.

Richie Incognito lives in the world that our rabid consumption of the game has created. It’s a place for tough guys, where the mentally and physically weak are weeded out quickly. For those who show themselves to be affected by taunting and teasing, the taunting and teasing get louder, until they either break or develop a good defense. If you can’t handle a joke from your teammates, how are you going to handle the fourth quarter when we need you?—that, at least, is the conventional wisdom. Jonathan Martin’s defense was to walk out. Maybe that was a good thing. Maybe we need to get more sensitive about this stuff. But let’s also try to understand it. Richie Incognito acted like an animal because he lives in the jungle.

A particularly insightful discussion of the issue was on Melissa Harris-Perry’s MSNBC show yesterday. Perry connected the issue to larger notions of hazing (talking to documentary filmmaker Byron Hurt whose “Hazing: How badly do you want in?” will be released soon), and to the ways that traditional masculinity opens lower-class men to exploitation by those whose power comes from money rather than brawn.

In particular, Harris-Perry connected the Martin/Incognito story to the NFL’s concussion issue, which got that much hotter this week with the revelation that all-time-great Cowboy running back Tony Dorsett suffers from chronic trauma encephalopathy, a mood-and-memory disorder associated with repeated concussions. Harris-Perry talked to former NFL player Don McPherson, who said:

You hear all these men talking now about this “suck it up, take it like a man”. Well, should we therefore then take our concussions like a man? Should we stop complaining about the fact that we can’t remember our last Super Bowl, like Tony Dorsett was saying this last weekend? Should we take that like a man? Or should we understand that even though he’s a tough guy who plays football, he’s still a human being?

Hazing and bullying is often about group solidarity. And often the ultimate beneficiary of a solid group isn’t a team or teammate, or even the bully himself, it’s a boss or owner.

Ta-Nehisi Coates also made the Incognito/Dorsett connection:

I grew up in a time and place where you really did have to fight if you expected to be able to live. … when I was young our bodies were all we had. Imposing those bodies on other bodies was the height of our power. It was also the limits of it. All the while we knew that were other people with greater power, who imposed with force so great that it seemed mystical to us. To see football players—arguably the most exploited athletes in major sports—bragging about manly power, along the same codes that once ruled my youth, is saddening.

and in a different post, Coates says:

We all believe in the right to defend one’s own body. But the ability to kick someone’s ass is oft-stated and overrated. Jerry Jones doesn’t want to fight DeAngelo Hall. He won’t ever need to, because such is his power that he can erect a Wonderland of a stadium, reduce men to toy soldiers, and toss their battered bodies out onto the street when he’s done. Pimping ain’t easy, but it sure is fun.

If you squint hard enough you might dimly perceive the outlines of some phantasm, some illusion. You might see power back there behind the scrum. You might see how a national valorization of violence attaches itself to profit.

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  • Abby Hafer  On November 11, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    Richie Incognito lives in the jungle? Ridiculous! He earns millions of dollars a year in one of the most highly-regulated workplaces on earth. There are referees, whistles, boundaries, downs, timekeepers, a whole stack of rules and penalties for breaking them.

    If he wants to find out about a jungle sometime, he can try driving taxis late at night, or being a women doing door-to-door sales. Or go to an actual jungle, and see how often his bullying tactics work on tigers and poison snakes.

  • Lance Brown  On November 14, 2013 at 10:38 am

    Bullying changed my life. My dad played football in middle and high school and encouraged me to play. I was a big husky boy and would have been a good lineman. In 7th grade, I tried to try out for the football team and went through the wrong locker room door for the meeting. I walked into the 8th grade boys suiting up for their first day of practice; the same boys who routinely taunted and punched me in the hallways between classes. I turned around, walked out, and never went back. Explaining that to my parents was not fun.

    I sometimes wonder how my life would be different if I had found the tryout meeting and joined the football program. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been the high school outcast I turned out to be.

    I did join the wrestling team in 10th grade and was subjected to locker room bullying due to my weight and body shape which eventually drove me to leave that team part way through my 12th grade year.


  • By Governing | The Weekly Sift on November 11, 2013 at 11:21 am

    […] This week’s featured articles: “Nobody’s a Moderate in the Republican Civil War” and “Bullies, Victims, and Masculinity“. […]

  • By Déjà vu | The Weekly Sift on February 17, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    […] the independent report the NFL commissioned on the locker-room culture of the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins bullying story broke in November, when Jonathan Martin left the team and Richie Incognito was […]

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