I’m not a sports fan. in fact, I’m so not a sports fan that I can seldom match the team names with the sports they play. But friends have been sharing so many stories and clips about the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin affair—racism and bullying in the Miami Dolphins—that I felt compelled to investigate.
For my fellow Martians, here’s the nutshell: Incognito and Martin are two 320-pound football players who work for the Miami Dolphins. Martin is 24, a Stanford graduate, an offensive tackle and African American. He is the child of a corporate lawyer and a professor, with a stellar sports career and a reputation for intelligence. Incognito is 30, a guard, white, from humbler origins, who trails a stream of suspensions and expulsions, mostly for fighting; he turned pro without completing college. In 2009, National Football League players voted Incognito the “dirtiest” player in the league. After obscene and racist text and email messages, countless locker-room incidents, and a dining-hall prank masterminded by Incognito that evidently felt like the last straw, Martin resigned from the Dolphins and headed into a silence he has not yet broken, although he has met with an NFL attorney and reportedly declared his desire to return to football. Incognito has been suspended indefinitely for “conduct detrimental to the team,” and has made many public protestations that he and Martin were friends, that the aforementioned messages and texts were merely business as usual in the NFL.
There’s been commentary galore on this affair, but I turn to John Stewart, whose Daily Show segment on 7 November nailed it. He strings together football players flatly blaming Martin for being unable to take a joke, followed by commentators looking seriously into the camera and attributing the whole thing to “the culture.” In fact, the word “culture” is repeated so many times that Stewart dons a monocle and an English accent to declaim, “Well, carry on! By all means carry on with your death threats and racial slurs. I didn’t realize it was your culture.”
My head is spinning to contemplate the use to which the word “culture” has been put here. On the one hand, it makes sense as the name for an interlocking system of signs and customs that permeate consciousness and shape conduct. On the other, these NFL accolytes clearly see culture as something that grows out there—“It’s not me, it’s the culture”—like a super-strain of Athelete’s Foot that has escaped its Petri dish and invaded their locker-rooms.
Here’s the thing: they understand that there is a culture of racism, a culture of bullying where manhood is achieved through the raw clash of flesh and bone. But they show no sign of comprehending the fundamental truth that culture is made by human beings, that everything created must first be imagined, that they—and we—have the capacity to reject, re-imagine, and recreate the culture that perpetuates this brutality.
The whole affair puts a fine point on racial realities in America. In a culture where might makes right, says New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden, Martin is seen as a weakling for not attacking his pursuers; perhaps the whole football enterprise must fall to terminal incivility before anything changes. In a long and interesting column, Ty Schalter offers a class analysis, showing us football players as trained to dance for their elite masters, who secretly get off on the racism and bullying Incognito and his defenders displayed. Rebekah Howard spells out some of the racial dimensions of the drama, including the fact that some of Incognito’s defenders were African American—but perhaps not so powerfully as former football player turned TV sports commentator Shannon Sharpe in this clip on CBS.
Culture changes through cultural action. I don’t know that Shannon Sharpe thinks of himself as a cultural activist, but I do. There will be more on television about this when Incognito’s suspension is formalized and Martin’s return to the NFL arranged. Right now, it remains a play, a film, a thousand story circles waiting to be created, in which the institutions shaped to reinforce race and class privilege are forced to come out from behind the curtain, reveal their culpability, and open themselves to change. The culture made me do it? No, the mountain-sized Incognito had choices and chose to swim with the stream of racism and brute force in the money world of professional sports, not against it. He helped to make the culture. Who will remake it?
Did you know Lou Reed wrote a football song? In “Coney Island Baby,” he wrote: “And all those older guys/They said he was mean and cruel, but you know/Wanted to play football for the coach.” Rest in Peace, Lou Reed. If you haven’t read the beautiful tribute by his wife, the musician Laurie Anderson, you’ll find it here.