There’s a scene in the film “Mystery, Alaska” where members of the town’s revered hockey team hash out some intrasquad conflict while gathered in their sweatlodge of a locker room. One teammate admits to spilling the beans about a derogatory comment another player made about a woman he slept with. The punishment for gossiping? The guilty teammate is forced to slide balls first into a snowbank on a pond, wearing nothing but a jockstrap.
That’s the kind of boys-will-be-boys antic we layfolk believe happens in sports locker rooms everywhere. What we don’t envision? A voicemail left by one teammate to another saying “Wassup you half n—– piece of s–.” That teammate returning the favor by texting the other a meme that boasts “I will murder your whole f—— family.”
Those are alleged exchanges between Richie Incognito, a veteran Miami Dolphins offensive lineman, and his rookie compatriot, Jonathan Martin, from earlier this season. Martin’s departure from the team last week has sparked a firestorm over behavior in the locker rooms of the NFL – by head and shoulders the most popular, powerful entertainment entity in the country.
If you ask Incognito and several other current and former NFL players, such comments aren’t abnormal. He says his racially charged voicemail came “from a place of love” and suggests the same about Martin’s response.
“Did I think Jonathan would murder my family? Not one bit,” Incognito said in an interview with FOX’s Jay Glazer on Sunday. “I knew it was coming from a brother, coming from a friend, coming from a teammate. That puts into context how we communicate with each other.”
Ah yes, context. Perhaps these young men need a lesson about love and healthy communication. As a white woman, I can’t fathom a circumstance when I’d call one of my black friends the N-word. As a levelheaded human being, I’d never consider joking about killing someone’s family.
Many commentaries about the episode (see PBS, the New Republic, and the Washington Post) rightly use the Dolphins’ dysfunctional locker room to spotlight the prevalence of bullying in our society and emphasize that no one – not even professional athletes – are immune to its dangers. So I won’t re-plough that ground.
What’s disturbed me most about the coverage of the event, though, is how quick we as a football-addicted nation have been to dismiss this as just the “NFL being the NFL.” The National Football League – that parallel universe where men play by different rules than the rest of us and we don’t really care, so long as we have enough time to set our fantasy rosters for the week and indulge in our fix every Thursday, Sunday, and Monday from August through December.
Full disclosure: I have a mug that reads – “There are four seasons: Winter, Spring, Summer & Football.” I’m a hopeless, rabid Washington Redskins fan, and I have been my whole life. I adore this game. But even those of us who live for crisp Sunday afternoons at the stadium can’t ignore the way the NFL seems to steamroll everything in its path – with our tacit blessing.
The damning Frontline documentary League of Denial came and went in August. Its startling allegations about the way the NFL actively impeded or suppressed research related to traumatic brain injuries suffered by players over the past three decades barely made a blip on the mainstream media radar.
The NFL settled a longstanding lawsuit in August, agreeing to pay $765 million to handle the myriad health problems among its 18,000 former players. If evenly distributed among all retired NFL players, the payouts would come to less than $50,000 apiece. Worse still, the NFL wasn’t required to turn over any internal documents that might show what – and when – it knew that playing the game was harmful to its employees’ health. What was the media response? Some obligatory coverage on the pregame shows before the 2013 season’s first week. And that’s it.
The New Orleans’ Saints’ Bountygate. What did the New England Patriots know about Aaron Hernandez’s alleged illegal activity – and play him anyway? Roger Goodell’s wishy-washy stance toward Native American groups protesting the Redskins’ name.
Many of these transgressions fade away as the sports news cycle rotates on. It’s just the NFL being the NFL. We continue to buy DirecTV NFL Sunday Ticket and spend thousands of dollars for Personal Seat Licenses. We are first in line to buy the jersey of the newest draft pick by our favorite team. We are the reason the NFL’s revenues topped $9 billion in 2012 and its 32 clubs collectively are worth more than $37 billion.
So before we decry the toxic culture of NFL locker rooms, perhaps we should take a look in the mirror and consider how our nearly blind devotion to professional football in America helps breed the Richie Incognitos of the world. If we don’t, we might as well sit back down on the couch in our authentic Nike replica jersey, dig into the hot wings, and shut up.