This article was originally published in the 3rd Issue of Bluestockings Magazine.
There is a hill that lies down the street from my home in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It is around sixty-five yards long and runs upwards at about a forty-five degree angle. My senior year of high school, my father would wake me up at five o’clock in the morning, four days a week, to run up and down that hill five times. I like to think that when I die I will not experience hell, but if I do, I know that it will pale in comparison to that hill. No pain is ingrained into the depths of my nerves quite like the pain my hamstrings and quadriceps had to endure on those mornings. No burn will ever torture me as much as my lungs stung in the cold fall air that year. It was hell. It was pain. It was beautiful.
In early November, Richie Incognito—offensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins professional football team of the National Football League—was suspended for “hazing” fellow offensive lineman and teammate Jonathan Martin. Incognito was apparently told by the Miami Dolphins coaching staff that he needed to “toughen up” Martin, who was not playing well and was considered “soft.” Coaches presumed that Martin, a Stanford graduate, was not physically and mentally strong enough to play in the NFL. It was left up to Incognito to “bring out the man” in Martin, to make him “drop his nutsack,” as some coaches might say. Incognito was charged with the responsibility, like so many teachers, coaches and fathers across the country, of helping a young man grow into himself as a productive member of a team.
Incognito seemed like the man for the job, but did not act like it. Instead of conferring with Martin on what it would take to become a better player in the NFL, he harassed Martin, sending him derogatory text messages and leaving him threatening and violent voicemails. The crux of the abuse came from Incognito, who is white, calling Martin, a black male, the n-word (hard “er”). Martin suffered the brunt of this abuse for an extended period of time. After physically confronting Incognito, he decided that showing up to work to be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for playing Incognito’s childlike game was no longer worth being bullied. He checked himself into a hospital for emotional distress, broken down from the experience.
Through characterizing Incognito’s text messages and voicemails as harmless bully- ing, many media commentators obscured the connections Incognito’s behavior has to present and historic racial violence, framing it as an isolated incident of bullying rather than as part of a deeper culture of pervasive racism. Some commentators, such as Skip Bayless, have gone the opposite direction and blamed the n-word for this situation entirely. He holds the belief that the word should be “eradicated” from the human language. Though this is certainly admirable, Bayless misses the point that the n-word is only a part of the problem. It is a vehicle for racism but not the root of racism. The culture around the word also creates problems, a culture where black people are supposed to be feared, inferior, or somehow less human than whites. Calling this incident “harmless bullying” or blaming the n-word entirely misses the point that how we see and treat difference and race in our culture allows for this type of harm- ful and racist assault on human dignity.
This news (like most news related to the NFL) held the nation’s attention for the obligatory forty-eight to seventy-two hours. During this time, several people of little to no import gave their opinions on the matter. Talking heads at ESPN, former players on the NFL Network, and columnists (oh, how many columnists there are in the world) broke down both sides of the argument. They were fair and balanced for the sake of being fair and balanced. Some condemned Incognito’s actions as racist and wrong. Others questioned Jonathan Martin’s openness in exposing this, since these matters are usually handled “in- house.” As former Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Tony Siragusa said on the Dan Patrick Show, “They talk about teams being a family. When you’re in the locker room, that’s like your home…Things are handled in there and said in there that shouldn’t be brought out to the media. And plainly because the media, and really the real world, can’t handle a lot of those things and things that happen in that locker room.” Some people wondered why no one in the Miami Dolphin locker room stepped up to defend Martin, while others defended the Miami Dolphins players who circled the wagons around Incognito.
As a former player who has functioned in a locker room, I completely understand the sentiment to keep certain things inside of the locker room. These players are your friends, teammates, and, on a certain level, brothers. You don’t expose inner-workings to an outer world that probably won’t comprehend the dynamics. In sports, and in football in particular, men are supposed to be made of iron and possess an indomitable will. This is correct; football and sports are usually a battle of wills, and the “tougher” person usually wins. But a strong will and passion do not and should not be associated with the kinds of masculinity that abusers use to justify their actions—a masculinity that requires men to hide emotion, to obscure true feelings.
But what if you no longer feel that you are a friend, a teammate, a brother? Would you not expect one of your brothers to stop the bullying from escalating to the point where you feel completely ostracized? Because once you reach that level, you have no one to look out for except yourself.
Jonathan Martin is an educated man, a Stanford graduate who just so happens to play football. Unfortunately, some people equate a Stanford degree with being “soft,” though I doubt Richie Incognito would have the mental and emotional toughness to withstand the pressures of being an African-American man navigating his way through an elitist and rigorous institution such as Stanford. But thinking about this incident, I can’t help but wonder why the Dolphins coaches chose Incognito, who has had a reputation of viciousness on the field, to men- tor Martin. Was there not another veteran on the offensive line who could step in? Did they not think about the type of person Incognito is and how the dynamics of a relationship with Incognito would play out? It should have been clear that Martin, a minority in several senses of the word (not only is he African-American, but Stanford grads don’t usually play in the NFL) would not have responded well to a man like Incognito, who has a history of arrests and bad behavior. Martin was subjected to bullying and abuse from a person with less character than himself, a person who has been kicked off teams time and time again. The Dolphins put Martin in a situation where he showed up to work every day as inferior to an inferior man. But since Incognito—a white male, veteran of the league, arrest warrant champion—had more “experience,” he was put into a position of mentorship. A position one could say that wasn’t earned by merit, but by having the privilege to be born a white man. But some people do not see it like this.
Incognito’s criminality and violence play into hyper-masculine stereotypes valued in football. Incognito’s ability to faithfully display such behaviors gained him the respect of his team- mates. One Dolphins player went as far as calling Incognito an “honorary” black. Because of this, Incognito felt he was in a position to use the n-word with impunity regardless of Martin’s feelings or skin color. This reinforces the problem of associating this type of violent and criminal-esque behavior with African-American men. Incognito probably thought what he was saying was okay; he was violent enough to be considered “down” as his organization and the culture around him allowed him as a white male to think his behavior and language was acceptable. This analysis was expressed by columnists with a critical lens on race. However, the most interesting commentary did not come from the columnists, or the players, or the talking heads. Rather, it came from my football-plebian friends. Transcending class lines, everyone—from the guys I live with to the fantasy football heroes back home—agreed that although the use of the n-word was wrong, Incognito was in the right.
It was in these conversations that I became the most worried. One does not gauge the true pulse of an idea by listening to the columnist— although they often fail (as do I)—it is their job to attempt to be nuanced and learned. It comes from listening to people. When asking male friends about the Incognito incident, the pre- vailing reaction was “Martin is a grown man, he has to step up for himself.” This usually coincided with the idea that Martin had to step up for himself by fighting, and that he seemed weak. Surprisingly, both black and white peers gave me this response. Like the Dolphin coach- es, they all saw Martin as soft, and they agreed that sometimes you have to just have to “be a man” and fight. Incognito should not have used the racial slurs, but Martin shouldn’t be such a “pussy.” “He’s a 300 pound man! He shouldn’t be checking himself into a hospital for emotional distress.” The coaches told Incognito to toughen Martin up, and in the eyes of the masses, Martin is a failing student, but not because Incognito is a bad teacher.
My response to this makes me contemplate questions of masculinity. It troubles me that people think there is only one right idea of being a man. There seems to be this prevailing idea that manliness is measured by faux-machismo signals. I am also concerned that my male peers feel that sending derogatory text messages is a useful and legitimate way to toughen someone up. Somewhere between Teddy Roosevelt and today, manliness was co-opted by tribal tattoos and beer commercials. How is showing great emotion, passion, and vigor in all walks of life—sad and happy— not manly?
In another example, Brandon Marshall, an All-Pro wide receiver for the NFL’s Chicago Bears, was fined $10,500 by the NFL for wearing green cleats during a game. He wore green in honor of Mental Health Awareness Week, having openly dealt with and confronted a per- sonal bout with borderline personality disorder. When Marshall was asked about the Incognito incident, he said to the Chicago Tribune, “Take a little boy and a little girl. A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is ‘Get up, shake it off. You’ll be OK. Don’t cry.’ A little girl falls down, what do we say? ‘It’s going to be OK.’ We validate their feelings. So right there from that moment, we’re teaching our men to mask their feelings, to not show their emotions. And it’s that, times 100 with football players. You can’t show that you’re hurt, can’t show any pain. So for a guy to come into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, that’s a problem.” Apparently the masses think Martin should continue to hide his feelings, that displaying them makes him look like an untrained little boy. It takes incredible strength and will to confront problems with yourself, such as mental illness and other inner demons—certainly more strength and will than is required to beat someone off the line.
This brings me back to the hill. My father woke me up at five a.m. every morning to run that hill, as he walked up it by my side. As a captain of my high school football team and senior offensive and defensive lineman, much was expected of me. He and I both knew that a state championship was an attainable goal, but in order for that to be achieved, two things must first be earned. First, a level of physical stamina unparalleled by any of my opponents. Second, a mental toughness that would be a guiding light in my hardest times. The hill helped me gain both of those things. It burned, it hurt, and it killed, but it made me tough.
Football games became easier for me, and much more enjoyable. I took pride in knowing I could climb the hill. The self-esteem gained from conquering it helped me to become a better leader.
Although I was confronted with a literal hill, people are faced with their own “hills” every day. It is important that the mentors of the future have a better understanding of what it means to forge masculinity. Manliness is something that comes about in context, and since every man is different, mentors need to be receptive to an individual’s needs. They should be open-minded to difference and personal history, and strive for a society that embraces different types of manliness. Hopefully, when a mentee reaches the top of their hill they will have achieved characteristics to be proud of, ones that promote human equality and love without sacrificing strength. All young men are unique and face different, but nonetheless difficult, challenges in their lives. The people who care for these young men are charged with a responsibility to make sure that they are supported in becoming men.
Because Incognito did not help Martin get up the hill, he failed Martin, and that is Incognito’s fault, due to his warped conception of what being a man means. Richie Incognito took the easy way out. He could have built Martin up, turning Martin into a better football player by staying late with Martin to watch film, encouraging Martin to run ten extra plays after practice—running the hill. Instead, Incognito thought that it was his job to force destructive stereotypes onto Martin. He took the beer commercial route of masculinity, the one that stifles human expression. Incognito’s actions did not “toughen up” Jonathan Martin; they broke his spirit. The pain of racial suffering is not the pain of a muscle being built, it is the pain of an injury going untreated. The pain made Martin hate the sport he loved. It made Martin want to walk away from thousands of dollars. Incognito resorted to tactics of an abuser, belittling another human being to manipulate their behavior. Maybe this is what Incognito wanted, envious of a man with an education, envious of a younger and better player. Regardless, if anyone in this situation should be labeled “soft,” it is not Martin. Jonathan Martin made the brave and correct decision for himself—he sought help. On the other hand, Incognito displayed just how petulant, childish, and harmful many of these masculine stereotypes can be.
Unfortunately, these stereotypes are prevailing in our culture, as if they are the values that I want placed on the top of my hill. But they aren’t, and when we put these stereotypes on a pedestal to be reached, we cloud out the other—often more productive—types of masculinity worth striving for. Hopefully this conversation will not come to an uneventful and unhelpful end, with Incognito only being sent off to “sensitivity training” and Martin being pushed out of the league. No one wants to talk about what it means to be a man, because for the most part, we don’t know. Whatever it is though, it is certainly not the man Richie Incognito thought Jonathan Martin should be.
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