Stay on target.
It seems necessary to point out a few things regarding the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito story, which, really, is still developing. The basics, covered better elsewhere, are that Dolphins T Jonathan Martin abruptly left the team a week ago after he was bullied by Dolphins teammates, led by Pro Bowl G Richie Incognito. Additional reports have since come in, detailing Martin’s checking himself into a hospital, Incognito’s history of inappropriate behavior, the level of bullying Martin and other Dolphins rookies were subjected to, and even reports that Dolphins coaches ordered Incognito to toughen up Martin. Through all this two clear and opposing narratives have developed, one posturing Martin as the brave hero standing up to bullying, the other proposing Incognito is the one in the right, dismissing Martin as weak and bemoaning a lack of tough guys. Neither viewpoint is wholly accurate, neither is at all helpful, and it’s time to start really thinking about what can be done to make things better.
Articles like this, and this, miss the point on purpose, construing Martin’s case as a good-guy bad-guy dialectic with grander social implications that We Can All Learn Something From. Certainly, some of the responses to the news that Martin left the team, from pundits and fans, have been wrongly focused on mitigating the hateful actions directed at Martin. But, as a general rule in life, to respond to the lowest idiots and minority extremists and hold them up as examples for us to combat is to weaken the discourse needed for change. As such, sentences like this, from Grantland’s Brian Phillips, “this idea that Jonathan Martin is a weakling for seeking emotional help — this is some room-temperature faux-macho alpha-pansy nonsense, and I am here to beat it bloody and leave it on the ground," hurt the conversation we’re having by responding to an idiotic sentiment that few have expressed and moreover has nothing to do with the issue at hand. It is bordering straw man, and it is certainly digressing. Though some may be calling Martin that, this is not the main reaction to his and the Dolphins’ actions.
Most of the players and pundits I’ve read and watched who have blamed Martin or given the sense that he was weak did not do so because he sought emotional help, but because of the manner in which Martin left the team. I have not seen anyone take issue with Martin for going to a hospital. I have seen players take issue with, as far as anyone can tell, Martin only going to a hospital, without trying to get help in any other fashion. While some NFL folks will say things like, "if Incognito did offend him racially, that's something you have to handle as a man!” and some of them will say or believe that physically fighting your tormentor is the first or best route to take, the majority of comments I’ve read say that there are other options available to bullied or hazed individuals to stand up for themselves and create a resolution; things like asking Incognito to stop, making a joke out of the situation, talking to other players about it, or reporting to a coach. And, to the best of our knowledge, Martin tried none of these options. This is the single most common thing said about this case, and the thing that causes the most “negative” comments about Martin; not that he’s weak, but that there were options available to him and he did not attempt to resolve the issue in any way other than to abruptly leave his teammates. Given this, it is time we stop blindly praising Martin for being brave and standing up to bullying, turning him into a symbol, and distracting ourselves from the facts of the story; at the least, we need to wait until we hear his side of the story.
But this doesn’t mean Martin’s the bad guy in our would-be black-and-white universe. As has been documented, Richie Incognito is a certified asshole, and as many people are now reporting, the Dolphins locker room is a unique center for hazings and rookie torment. While Brandon Marshall says that "what’s going on in Miami goes on in every locker room," we would be remiss in ignoring that most NFL players and coaches have expressed shock at the level at which things have come to in Miami; if we're talking about reinforcing stale gender roles then yes, this goes on in every locker room, and every workplace, but rarely at this level. If we agree that Miami is a uniquely horrible situation for rookies, we would also need to allow that Martin’s reaction to it would probably be equally unique. Most likely all typical “in-house” routes in this Jeff Ireland-run organization were closed to him, making the only options available to Martin with the NFLPA or league office; so yeah, the thought of asking Roger Goodell for help may have made walking away from his teammates in an apparent hissy fit seem like the best idea Martin’s ever had. This is the nuance to the story that is being missed in the rush to make it something grand, societal, and more importantly, easily digestable.
It’s also important to address the Richie Incognito-as-meathead-supervillain or misunderstood-white-knight storylines. Clearly, he’s a jerk. He gets in fights and gets fined an awful lot. Despite a high talent level, he’s been let go by teams with clear needs for decent offensive line play. When NFL players are polled to find out who’s the most hated guy in the league, he’s been at the top of the list. He has tribal tattoos and a terrible haircut. And it needs to be noted that he has public support from most of his teammates as well. Despite all this, because of the presence of the n-word in a threatening voicemail to Martin he’s become a wonderful lightning rod for yet another lovely and illuminating race debate. Cough.
While I love and appreciate this brilliant argument from Greg Howard, obliterating those who would defend Incognito from accusations of racism, it needs to be said that this is another distracting argument. Howard is absolutely right, and he absolutely kills the notion that it’s okay for some white people to say the n-word. But it’s all absolutely off-topic. It does not matter whether Richie Incognito is racist or not. What matters is the hatred he espoused in his voicemail, his harassment of Martin, and the fact that he extorted $15,000 from Martin (and maybe more from other rookies). The “is he or isn’t he racist” arguments are polarizing and unhealthy distractions from the matters at hand, feeding into the “Embrace Debate” attitude that's all too popular; where it’s more important to pick a side then solve a problem. Does it matter that Trayvon Martin may or may not have said “honky,” or is it more important that he was unlawfully stalked and shot? Does it matter that Incognito said the n-word qua it being the n-word, or is the relevant issue that he said it as an insult in the midst of other threats?
There are a host of other distracting takes on this issue, most notably rising around the idea of hazing. The NFL doesn’t need a policy on hazing just because the public has learned Incognito and other Dolphins harassed and financially ruined Martin and other rookies. This is partly because the Dolphins locker room is being shown to be atypical of other locker rooms, and mostly because “hazing” and “bullying” pale in comparison to the already-defined rules of workplace harassment, and, oh yeah, EXTORTION. Threatening and demanding $15,000-$30,000 from an unwilling person is against actual, real-world laws, not just Roger Goodell’s already-too-powerful PR campaign of sham paternalism.
It’s a shame that the discussion around this story has devolved so. What I would like to see in the future reporting of this story is the timeline of what pushed Martin over the edge, Incognito’s antagonism and the role of the rest of the team, and, perhaps most importantly, the role that the higher-ups in the Dolphins organization had in not helping, and possibly ordering the attacks on, Martin, and how this could have been prevented. I could do without the politicization, misconstruction, and irrelevance of our current discourse.