Let me paint a scenario for you. Let’s say that you’ve been working at a white-collar job for a couple of years… it pays well and you’ve got the potential to make absurd amounts of money if you stick around for a few more years and move up in the organization.
But part of the job means putting up with the culture of the office – a culture where your co-workers see nothing wrong with breaking into your computer and playing with your social media networks. Where you’re expected to put up with constant high-school era pranks and insulting tweets. At this job, it’s considered perfectly acceptable for one of your co-workers to make you pay for trips, meals and even expensive gifts for them… with the full knowledge and approval of your immediate supervisor and the CEO of the corporation. As long as you work there, you’re expected to put up with a torrent of harassing texts and voice messages from somebody who has decided it’s “funny”. HR is no help; it’s just part of the price of working there.
How long would you be willing to put up with a workplace atmosphere that toxic? How quickly would you be suing that company into the dirt?
So why in pluperfect hell should we consider this to be any more “acceptable” when it happens in the NFL?
I am, of course, speaking of the Miami Dolphins fiasco – Jonathan Martin’s harassment at the hands of his improbably named teammate Richie Incognito.
Just as last week gave me a perfect (and unfortunate) opportunity to talk about male privilege in nerd culture, the ongoing story of Richie Incognito’s harassment has given me another opportunity to talk about the harm that toxic masculinity does to men – both culturally and on the individual level.
Jock vs. Nerd Redux
I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not a sports guy. I wish I did like sports more – it seems like everyone’s having an awesome time when they’re into it… but it’s simply not my thing. Outside of catching UFC matches and the various martial arts at the Olympics, I’ve got about as much interest in sports as a dog does in watching the Daily Show.
Needless to say, I wasn’t going to be johnny-on-the-spot with this story; it initially fell outside of my range of interests. But after several of my readers linked me to it, I was struck by not just the textbook example of the damage that hypermasculinity causes, but the fact that this is a prime example of the nerd-vs.-jock anti-intellectual mentality that comes with it.
The players may as well have come from central casting. Jonathan Martin is a private-school educated Stanford graduate, the son of a pair of Harvard grads. He is by all reports mild-mannered and soft-spoken, possibly a little introverted. Take away the fact that he was a second-round draft pick in 2012 and you have someone who sounds very much like a classic geek. On the other side, you have Richie Incognito – a thug under the best of circumstances – who came to the Miami Dolphins after having been cut mid-season from the Rams and who had been expelled from two college teams beforehand for drugs, assault and refusing to complete an anger-management course. And of course, you have the front office of the Dolphins and their “macho man” coach who encourages his players to pound the nerd.
It’s so cliche that it’s practically an After-School Special.
And as so often happens, the initial story is cast to make Martin sound weak; the New York Post headline read “Dolphins Lineman Goes AWOL After Teammates Teased Him.” Deadspin reported it as “An Emotional Breakdown”. Even now there is a tendency to minimize things by calling it “bullying”, a term that carries distinct tones of childishness and the implication that Martin is a “big fucking pussy1” for not being able to put up with what initially sounded like something from the plot of Mean Girls. Ooh no, the big football player can’t handle a bunch of people refusing to eat with him at lunch waaaaaah.
By continuing to call it “bullying” , we belittle what Martin had gone through. Bullying carries the connotations of school-yard shenanigans, of having his books slapped away from him and being teased in the hallways. Ex-coach Jimmy Johnson even goes so far as to blame Martin for his own breakdown, suggesting that his leaving the Dolphins implies that he doesn’t have the mental toughness to be a “real man”. The cries of “he’s too sensitive”, “he’s too weak”, “he couldn’t take a joke” may sound familiar to anyone who’s ever actually dealt with this sort of treatment before; the implied “get over it you big pansy”, the suggestion that he’s too feminine to hang with the big-boys… it’s a way of denying Martin his masculinity. He’s not a man, he’s a boy at best or – worse – a fag or even a girl.
It’s the meat-head versus the intellectual; Richie Incognito is “a real man” because he’s a violent, thick-skulled ball of high-testosterone-alpha-male boorishness and bullshit while Jonathan Martin is the “wuss” because he’s educated, more passive and less imposing.
So instead of downplaying the way that Incognito – and by many reports, other players – treated Martin, let’s call it what it is: harassment. This is the result of a culture that equates “manliness” with violence and emotional repression, where the only appropriate response to harassing behavior is to try to hurt somebody else in order to re-establish your masculine cred.
Tribalism and Tradition
Martin is hardly alone in his shitty treatment by Incognito and other players. In fact, all the rookies on the Dolphins have experienced something similar in the name of “hazing”. Rookie Dinners – a tradition in the NFL where the rookies treat the veteran players to dinner – have started costing upwards of $30,000; even split amongst players, that’s a substantial portion of a rookie’s paycheck.
Everything tastes better when rookies pay for it pic.twitter.com/KGaisEfap2
— Jared Odrick (@JaredOdrick98) November 2, 2013
The Miami Herald’s Adam Beasely remarked that the Dolphins veterans “use younger players as ATMs to finance their nightlife whims. These older players have been caught up in the fast-paced Miami lifestyle without the burden of having to pay for it, the source continued.”
One young defensive player, whose privacy I’m protecting, has literally gone broke because he’s been pressured to pay for older players.
— Adam Beasley (@AdamHBeasley) November 3, 2013
The argument, of course, is that this is all part of the NFL culture; all rookies go through some hazing. It’s supposed to “bring everybody together” and make you part of the family.
Except… it doesn’t.
“Hazing” is just one of the names we give to “abuse” or “extortion” when it’s done in the name of tradition; it’s the idea that in order to be part of some brotherhood, you are obligated to endure a painful and humiliating initiation. And yet tradition is one of the stupidest reasons to continue to do something; the idea that “everybody else went through it” somehow justifies torture and extortion is absurd on its face. How, exactly, is stealing a rookie’s credit card – as Richie Incognito bragged about doing in an interview – and buying jet skis for himself and the other offensive linemen, promoting brotherhood and team unity? What, exactly, is the value in a tradition that includes, say, beating a rookie football player with socks full of pennies, as happened to Cam Cleeland during his rookie year with the New Orleans Saints? As part of this long-running “tradition”, his teammates hit him in the face so hard that it broke his nose and shattered his eye-socket, nearly blinding him in one eye and almost ending his career before it even began.
Even harmless hazing rituals – giving rookies crazy haircuts – can go badly quickly; Brendon Ayanbadejo has shared stories from his time with the Chicago Bears where an otherwise mild hazing incident started to escalate out of control after one rookie refused to play along. Fortunately, nobody was seriously injured, but it was a near-thing.
The sad thing is: hazing is absolutely pointless. It’s simply another expression of the idea that “manliness” is about toughness, about not being willing to show emotion or admit to pain or that things have gone beyond endurance. It doesn’t bring a team together; that’s what training does. Despite having banned hazing in the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1997 , the United States Marines manages to build close-knit team of soldiers – brothers and sisters in arms – without allowing the NCOs to abuse and debase them.
Weeding Out The “Weak Links”
The ongoing narrative from the many players rallying around Richie Incognito is that Richie was just “trying to toughen him up” – apparently at the insistence of the Dolphins’ front office – not to harass him into leaving the team. Incognito insisted that his treatment of Martin was “out of love”, just part of the ball-busting “ha ha bro” that marks the only way men are allowed to show affection for one another.
Which, of course, makes perfect sense; who doesn’t call their bro by racist epithets and threaten to shit in his mouth, assault his mother and threaten to kill him?
Others have suggested Martin wasn’t fitting in with the culture of the Dolphins – having not participated in two technically-voluntary Offseason Team Activities workouts – and Incognito was supposed to “draw him out” and “toughen him up” as management’s enforcer – a role that Incognito was reported to relish.
Considering that Incognito extorted $15,000 from Martin to fund a Vegas trip that Martin didn’t even attend, it’s not hard to wonder why Martin might not want to spend time with the team when he didn’t have to. Or wanting to spend time around people who told him they were going to gang-rape his sister. Or who constantly mocked him over and over again via Twitter. Because of course the best way to draw somebody into the fold, to make them work harder to be “part of the team” is to make them feel like even more of an outsider than they already do.
For that matter, trying to “toughen” somebody up by harassing them and then being surprised that they break down is at best, disingenuous. I have friends whose families had decided that they were “too sensitive” and that the best way to “toughen them up” was to insult them and belittle them at every available opportunity. Strangely, this not only didn’t make them “tougher”, it only guaranteed that they would never willingly associate with their family again.
Funny how that works.
Much like with hazing, the purported purpose is to reinforce the idea that to be “a man” is to endure – even embrace – humiliation, to show no emotion. To allow yourself to be vulnerable is to be seen as weak – and there’s nothing that thugs like Incognito love more than somebody showing an apparent weakness. It’s a reinforcement of the neanderthal-like bullshit machismo of the Dolphins’ culture, the worship of hypermasculinity over actual team unity and strength. Even the suggestion – floated by Miami General Manager Jeff Ireland – that if Martin had a problem with the way Incognito was treating him then he should have settled it with his fists, falls into this paradigm; violence as the only acceptable response to conflict.
Of course, even if Martin had been willing to lash out at Incognito, nothing would have been resolved. If anything, things would have been worse; Incognito already has a long-documented history of violence as well as verbal assault of referees and illegal plays against other teams during his brief tenure with the Rams. Despite the oft-told advice that bullies back off when confronted by their victims, most bullies relish the opportunity to fight and inflict even more pain. If Martin had made things physical, then the best case scenario is that he would be in a knock-down, drag-out brawl; he would have to actually try to hurt or even incapacitate Incognito, and likely would have been badly injured himself.
Not exactly a prime way to bring the team closer together.
And yet for all the people castigating Martin for being weak, his response to the constant harassment showed that he was, in fact, the strongest of them all.
The Quiet Strength and the Cost of Hypermasculinity
There’s a rich vein of irony to be found in football players (and their fans, manly paragons of manliness and the warrior lifestyle, the lot of them I’m sure…) calling somebody “soft” in a sport that is in the middle of a mental health crisis. In the last year, Paul Oliver, Ray Easterling, Junior Seau, O.J. Murdock, Jovan Belcher all committed suicide – Belcher murdering his girlfriend beforehand. All of them were “tough”. They “played through the pain,” physically and metaphorically.
And they took their own lives because they couldn’t ask for help or admit to being hurt.
The code of hypermasculinity states that men don’t admit to pain, that “pain is weakness leaving the body.” Except it’s not. Pain is the way that your body says something’s wrong.
Jonathan Martin was in pain. He was being tormented by his supposed brothers at the request of management. There was literally nowhere for him to turn for relief. And so he did the strongest thing possible: he left. He quit a bad situation and went to get the help he needed – even as others attempt to punish him for it.
In doing so, he kicked over a hornet’s nest. The Gender Police are freaking out – falling all over themselves to call Martin soft or a pussy – because he didn’t live up to The Code, and the Code only works as long as everybody abides by it. When people don’t, they expose cracks in the system. They become the pebble that starts the avalanche that brings the whole mountain crumbling down.
This is why it’s so telling that people are quick to call him out, to try to minimize him; it’s an attempt to reaffirm that the ideals of that toxic masculinity stay strong lest others follow suit. By violating the code, he showed true strength. It would be easy to back down. All Martin had to do was play the game. He could flare up and throw Incognito a beatdown. He could pretend to laugh it off, grit his teeth and throw himself into the game. He could “play through the pain”. God knows there was every reason to; the reputation for being “weak” will follow him long after he completes his recovery. It could ruin his career; coaches and owners might well be loathe to hire a player that “just cracks under pressure”. Faking his way through was the path to a significant paycheck in only a few years time.
But he didn’t. He was willing to bear up under the scorn of a toxic culture and its weekend-warrior cheerleaders who get off on abusing others. He didn’t take a swing at Incognito – as so many others insisted they would have – because it was pointless. It would just re-affirm the correctness of the need for violence; he would become part of the culture that was arrayed against him. Instead, he stood up for his boundaries. He refused to be dragged in. He admitted that he needed help and left.
By turning his back on a broken system , Jonathan Martin proved himself to be a stronger and better man than some 320 lb goon could ever be.
- Their words, not mine. [↩]