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.
I am unaware of the details of this situation, but it strikes me that there is no excuse for football as a civilized sport — and therefore no reason expect the resulting culture of football (to the extent one exists) to be anything but bizarre. Does it even make sense to talk about something like bullying when the players are literally beating each other’s brains in?
The obvious anomaly of Martin is that he is upper class. And since he already has a fat contract and is lawyered up, doesn’t seem like much of a victim to me. Or a victim that I can feel much emotional empathy for.
Here is Malcom Gladwell’s argument for banning college football: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/sportingscene/2012/05/video-malcolm-gladwell-ban-college-football.html
As far as the notion that ‘the culture made me do it’ … one view of culture — a traditional one — discussed at length in Durkheim’s Rules of the Sociological Method — is that ‘culture’ is composed of: “… types of behaviour and thinking ,[that are not only] external to the individual, but they are endued with a compelling and coercive power by virtue of which, whether he wishes it or not, they impose themselves upon him.” http://comparsociology.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Emile-Durkheim-Rules-of-Sociological-Method-1982.pdf From this perspective, ‘culture made me do it’ is a totally sensible statement.
Regardless …. congratulations on making me think about something I ignored as just another sports non story.
As far as diversity, the NFL is anything but typical. http://www.tidesport.org/RGRC/2013/2013_NFL_RGRC.pdf
The locker room is 2/3 African American and, “Orlando, FL – October 22, 2013… The National Football League achieved its fourth consecutive A for racial hiring practices”
Whatever is going on in the NFL locker rooms, I doubt if it is anything like what we generally think of as racist.
I can’t agree. The fact that a majority of women work in a business doesn’t foreclose sexual harassment, for instance. Apropos your other comment, the fact that something is to be expected in a particular milieu doesn’t make it right. It’s not a matter of expecting things to be different and being disillusioned. Whether or not these things are typical or family, they are wrong and should be rebuked.
Great piece arlene. As america continues to become more racially and ethnically diverse, and some people of color make it up the economic ladder, issues of race and more importantly racism are going to get more complicated. but while race and class, and racism and classism, are inextricably linked in the US, wealthy people of color face racism as well…so they fact that martin has a high income (i’m not calling him wealthy since the person who owns tha team and is paying martin’s salary, along with thousands of other salaries, is the wealthy person in this case) doesn’t prevent other people from being racist against him.
and the fact that locker rooms are majority people of color (i think that stat is from the dolphins), and that the NFL has an affirmative action program on race for coaches better than anywhere else i’ve seen, also doesn’t detract from the fact that most coaches are white, and only 1 owner is a person of color.
Anyway, shannon hit the nail on the head. and so did you, arlene.
Thanks, Ludovic! Great points.
[…] Sterling. I don’t follow sports except when a new racism flare-up erupts into the media (as in this past November’s Miami Dolphins brouhaha)—although that happens often enough these days that I’m beginning to get the team names […]