Richie Incognito in fact went “incognito” to most NFL fans until this past week. Now, his name is showing up everywhere. His past isn’t checkered…it’s littered with indefensible actions. Though the situation is revealing itself to be more complicated than the originally narrative implied, it seems clear that Incognito and Martin were embroiled in a messy friendship/enemyship which was long-simmering and should have been mediated at some point within the locker room over the course of two years.
The most recent has made his name synonymous with all that can go wrong within the closed-off, macho world of the football locker room. From the outsider’s perspective, what dominates the male cage that is the team locker room is beyond a problem. It is a virus. American males who have spent time as teenagers on sports teams know something of the toxic atmosphere that has been made temporarily visible by the situation Jonathan Martin forced into the light, after staying in the dark with the personal harassment he faced for the last two years.
Some locker rooms are exceptional. Some are safe spaces for their inhabitants, a temporary refuge from a difficult family life, or a place of bonding in an otherwise isolated existence. So many, however, are places of insecurity, constant harassment, minimizing of individuality and an insane emphasis on conformity and hetero-normative attitudes on gender. A boy is supposed to “Man Up,” instead of mature. A boy is supposed to “tough it out,” instead of recognize physical pain. Pain is secondary. Mind over matter. Emotional pain? What’s that? Psychological pain? Can’t exist. Recovering from an injury? Your body is healed and that’s all that matters, now go “Man Up!”
I played team sports throughout my childhood. My mom signed me up for Pop Warner Football, Little League baseball, youth basketball (recreational and then town traveling teams), soccer teams, and a flood of summer youth programs and summer camps (usually hoops) in which I sweated away the Massachusetts humidity of July and August. I competed, learned about being a leader, being a teammate, what defined good sportsmanship, and, subconsciously, how to deal with other boys.
On the positive side, I learned how to persevere, not quit the teams that I didn’t want to play on, and how to get over the anxiety of being on a stage, whether it was on the pitcher’s mound, at the top of the key on a basketball court, or serving on a tennis court. I learned how to bullshit, how to laugh, how to make friends, and how to get along. I discovered that, through sports, I could deal with people and situations that made otherwise, might have made me uncomfortable.
I also learned how and what not to be: don’t be a Jew; don’t talk about your feelings; don’t be honest with people when they say things that upset you, just shove them harder in practice; don’t stand out; don’t be last in any drill; don’t push back when you’re bullied (especially when you’re smaller than most of your teammates), also: don’t be mediocre. Don’t be the worst player on a team at anything. Your self-confidence is tested every time you have the ball in your hands. That can make you. And it can break you. Thankfully, I made it. Most of the time. Until I decided the game was losing out to the atmosphere around the game. The identity that I was developing didn’t fit with the identity that team sports demanded of me after the age of 15. So I stopped playing them. There was a tennis team, but tennis doesn’t really count. The court was right next to my house. The majority of the kids on the team were not jocks. Some were barely athletic enough to play. Our high school’s team played in a league that allowed our coach to keep pretty much everyone. Just getting enough kids for a team was a problem in earlier years.
Understanding how to balance yourself as an individual within a team is a great skill. I’m lucky to have had the opportunity. I also had a strong enough sense of my own identity to know I couldn’t continue to play. However, some of my most confident moments, my favorite memories, were on a basketball court, a baseball field, or a tennis court. The one season of cross-country during my freshman year was mostly unmemorable, except for an utterly awful finish to a race which I had peaked way too early in. I was up with the juniors and seniors for the first half, before watching the other freshman pass me on the home stretch. As the race finished, I narrowly avoided vomiting for the final 200 yards or so, walking on wobbly legs, hunched over as if I’d just run a marathon.
The culture within a team is occasionally unifying. The Boston Red Sox of 2004 and 2013. The San Francisco Giants of 2010 and 2012. The Boston Celtics, for so many of the championship seasons in the franchise’s past, has given endless evidence of what team unity can bring. The Butler Bulldogs’ two NCAA Championship game appearances in 2010 and 2011 are further examples. We can’t really know how that atmosphere is created. The phrase “changing the culture” is tossed around haphazardly these days, as if a coaching staff and front office can attempt to screw in a new light bulb and flip the switch in order to develop that ineffable quality of chemistry and trust that makes the most unified teams tick. Easier said than done.
What is clear: how to destroy a culture, or a positive atmosphere, or to divide a locker room. Like with any group, once it is divided, it is conquerable. Pit teammates against each other. Talk behind each other’s backs. Turn friendly competition into a winner-take-all contest every day, where the teammates that lose feel bad about themselves and their abilities. Use the media to blame each other for losses, or to talk about how great one player’s individual contribution is. Coaches like Bill Belichick and Gregg Popovich often toy with the media. They give clipped or sarcastic answers. They demand silence from most of their players, in the guise of “let’s keep in in-house.” Who can blame them? They know that talking to the media is potentially dangerous. They know that certain players may say certain things which can/will be used to create controversy–more often now than before, with the potential disaster area that is Twitter. Yet, keeping players from being able to speak is Machiavellian. It’s a control-freak’s reaction to the unpredictable nature of the beast. Though understandable, it doesn’t show any trust in the players whom those coaches are demanding trust them. It’s a one-way street.
Finally, the culture is beginning to take bullying seriously. But masculinity? We’re still reinforcing the same old codes. Football takes these codes to extremes. Whether its the New Orleans Saints coaching staff paying players to intentionally knock out / injure other opposing players, or it’s the increasing evidence of brain traumas in retired football players, the NFL’s reputation is sinking slowly, Titanic-like, into an inevitable place where the only fans left in twenty years may be the least fortunate, least privileged members of society, in some cases, those who are unable to read the writing on the wall. When people have nothing to lose by investing themselves in a damaging and dehumanizing sport, they are not concerned with any of this. When people recognize that a personal investment of time, passion, and emotional energy (i.e. “fandom”) in a sport that is increasingly being “outed” for the barbaric world that it enables/allows/perpetuates there is a ticking clock on its existence.
Thanks to Natasha for bringing the story to my attention first, and thanks to Conan for sending me LZ Granderson‘s commentary.
From Sports Illustrated, an ex-teammate’s (Lydon Murtha) explanation of what he observed between Incognito and Martin over the time he spent with them in Miami. Pay particular attention to Murtha’s explanation of being on a football team as “a man’s job, where the weak links need to get weeded out.” While the team unity aspect makes sense, the blinding sense of conformity is where the problem lies. Black and white thinking (not in terms of race) in behavioral situations. In or out. No gray areas. Not to mention that Martin is described as “Shy and stand-offish,” which simply can’t work when surrounded by insecure boy-men who need everyone to laugh at all the same jokes and join in at all times, regardless of an individual’s taste or sensibility.
Slate’s “Hang Up and Listen” podcast elaborated on the incredibly obvious history of abuse and suspect behavior in Richie Incognito’s life that led up to the present predicament.
LZ Granderson’s piece, “Man Up: the Fear that Keeps Men From Acting Human” (from cnn.com, with a nod to from my friend, Conan)
You know those electronic collars that zap dogs that stray outside their electronic fences?
That seems to be the purpose of everyone’s favorite and seemingly innocuous phrase, “man up.”
Just mumbling those two words in a typical guy’s direction delivers a psychological shock that discourages him from venturing outside the restrictions of our traditional view of what it means to be a man.
Famed author Norman Mailer, known for his machismo and string of women, once said “tough guys don’t dance” — something I’m sure would be news to the men of the NFL, who are known for their machismo, string of women and, well, dancing in the end zone wearing tights.
But that’s the beauty of “man up.” Sometimes it’s the punchline shared among friends. Sometimes a mandate from strangers. At no point is it uniformly defined.
The irony in all of this, of course, is that it takes more strength to follow one’s own parameters than to stick to those handed down by the collective. A truth we’re constantly reminded of in Bible verses; Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Traveled”; and pop culture fixtures, like the 1976 flick “Car Wash,” in which the cross-dressing character, Lindy, confronts a critic with the iconic line: “I’m more man than you’ll ever be and more woman than you’ll ever get.”And yet, despite these constant reminders of the strength it takes to be ourselves, when presented with an opportunity to recognize that strength, someone yells “man up” and we all retreat back behind the electronic fence: ridiculing, teasing, sometimes bullying, those who don’t immediately follow suit.
Because of this, it’s hard to ignore the comical dichotomy that is American masculinity today: boisterous grandstanders too afraid to look in the mirror and deal with their own crap. A nation of men stunted by what is known as alexithymia — an inability to “discriminate the usual nuances of emotional life” as defined by Jason Thompson, author of “Emotionally Dumb: An Overview of Alexithymia.”
Psychologist Ron Levant believes “a mild form of alexithymia is very widespread among adult men.” He says it’s a product of the “male emotional socialization ordeal, which requires boys to restrict the expression of their vulnerable and caring emotions and to be emotionally stoic.”