The NFL finds itself in the midst of yet another scandal, this time centred around Miami Dolphins’ left guard, Richie Incognito. Second-year tackle Jonathan Martin has left the team to address “emotional issues” that were allegedly the result of bullying from Incognito.
The sequence of events gives an insight into the utter nonsense that is allowed to run rampant inside locker-rooms. Some Miami players have rushed to defend Incognito, claiming that Martin was the accused’s friend and that he found the voicemails “funny”. No matter how these players try to add context to the messages, its contents stand on their own as wholly reprehensible regardless of the explanation.
Some dismiss Martin’s objections as the player being unable to handle standard hazing meted out to rookie players. If others have dealt with the time-honoured tradition, who is Martin to hold himself to a different standard now? What these players fail to understand is that even though a behaviour might be sanctioned within a certain cultural context, it can still be problematic. If one player takes umbrage with hazing, that is one player too many.
It is the hyper-masculinity of football and other macho sports that allow these abuses to occur. Within this structure, homosexuals participate in homophobic behaviour so as to deflect attention from themselves. For example, a gay player is likely to laugh at or perpetrate homophobic jokes to blend into the systemically oppressive locker-room environment. Although the gay athlete plays along, his actions are still wrong. One argument holds that Martin laughed at the voicemails in the moment and so how can he now be crying foul? That Martin may have laughed at Incognito’s voicemails at one time doesn’t preclude him from taking a stand against them later on.
As Grantland writer Brian Phillips points out, much of the discourse surrounding this scandal fails to consider the legitimacy of mental health as an acceptable lens through which to view the issue. Instead, the discourse focuses on Martin’s supposed inability to deal with the hazing. Football’s strict adherence to the “warrior mentality” positions players like Martin as weak and less of a man because he didn’t “stand up for himself” or handle the matter “like a man” or confront Incognito with violence.
Look at it this way: No one thought Joe Theismann was soft for leaving the game when his leg was hanging sideways. Sometimes the brain goes sideways, and when that happens, “brave” or “cowardly” shouldn’t even come into it. Seeking help is just the practical thing to do.
However, because the attacks were verbal and not physical, people are unwilling to accept the emotional pain as legitimately injurious. Phillips documents the numerous reasons why this demeaning of mental health issues is problematic. When considered within the macho sphere of the football locker-room, the default position is too often to ridicule the alleged victim without due consideration.
The language used to defend Incognito, when decoded, is a typical attempt to position hyper-masculinity as the standard. Because Martin didn’t assert his so-called manhood, he is immediately cast as weak and less of a man. This is the ideology that has long been used to oppress homosexuals in sport, making it nearly impossible to have open discussions about a more inclusive way forward. Moreover, lost in this cloud of rhetoric is the fact that these behaviours and ways of thinking hurt heterosexuals too. Not only do they police the ways in which gays behave, but they also restrict the ways straight men interact with each out of fear of attracting the wrong kind of attention.
Presumably in response to the many attacks on Martin’s “toughness”, his lawyer released a statement today that took a stand for his client’s masculinity, documenting his career track record of playing a “smash mouth brand of football.” It also contains an alleged quote from a teammate that makes violently misogynistic threats toward Martin’s sister.
The NFL is clearly mindful of the litigious tentacles of this story. Thus far, it’s launched an investigation into the matter and has said all the right things. In the wake of so many scandals in recent years having to do with violence and abusive behaviour, is the NFL finally wise to the fact that football and all its associated environs are athlete’s workplaces and not just a space to partake in a highly paid hobby?
Professional sport is not exempt from the social and legal expectations of society at large. We, as a society, have laws in place to prevent these things from happening at work. Should the Miami Dolphins be found complicit in encouraging Incognito in any way, the NFL must hold the team accountable for aiding to cultivate an environment that could have fostered this kind of abuse and discrimination.
Whether or not Incognito and Martin were friends is irrelevant to this story. So too is Martin’s threshold or lack thereof in handling expected chirping/hazing. Incognito may have been or tried to be a mentor to Martin. The issue is how he went about doing it. My hope is that whatever support for Martin is not coming from a place of political correctness in opposition to the use of certain racist language in those voicemails, but part of legitimate concern for curtailing the bullying and oppressive behaviour in the locker-room.
Moreover, I look for this situation to shed light on mental health as a real and not imagined aspect of player’s lives in sport. Perhaps we can move past the expectations on player’s masculinity, how it should be performed, and what types are acceptable. This is not a quandary unique to athletics - mental health is an issue that is often overlooked in society until it is too late. That Jonathan Martin has elected to put his hand up is something that we should not dismiss casually, but treated as an opportunity to address a social problem that affects everybody in one way or another.