The culture of the NFL has some catching up to do

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By now we all know that Richie Incognito is a racist, hateful shithead. It’s no real surprise given that before this past weekend, most NFL observers viewed Incognito as just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill shithead. Now he’s just adding to his resume. But while Incognito’s threats and racist comments and accusations of bullying teammate Jonathan Martin were certainly alarming, what’s struck me as equally as disturbing has been the reaction to it all.

Mike Ditka suggested on ESPN’s pregame show on Sunday that Martin basically man up and challenge Incognito to a fight.  Even Marshall Faulk — one of the few articulate voices on the NFL Network — admitted that he, “didn’t know an adult could be bullied” which, holy shit. Then yesterday came several revealing tweets from SI’s Jim Trotter. Said one anonymous NFL personnel man to Trotter:

“Instead of being a man and confronting him, he (Martin) acted like a coward and told like a kid.”

That kind of sentiment isn’t isolated to those few instances, either.  More than a few people both in the media and in the sounding boards of fan blogs have come to condemn Martin despite Incognito not only sticking Martin with a $15,000 bill for a Vegas trip he didn’t even attend – but verbally harassing and abusing Martin dating all the way back to the beginning of last year. The consensus opinion among those questioning Martin can essentially be boiled down to this: “Stop being such a pussy.”

In many ways, this is just the concussion debate in groucho glasses. But instead of men who’ve forgotten their address from one too many ‘bell ringers’ being told to walk it off, it’s a different form of toughness being questioned. The mental kind. It’s ironic, really. When it comes to the physical brutality of football, the NFL has made huge strides in recognizing how outdated the ‘back in my day’ mentality has been. But as the resounding implications that Martin should essentially grow a pair proved, the NFL is still woefully behind the times in the area of mental punishment.

While that may seem unfortunate, it too, can’t be all that surprising. After all, the culture of the NFL has been designed to separate the, “Men from the boys” based at least partially on the amount of abuse a player is able to take. Can’t hack it during two-a-days in training camp? Cut. Can’t endure a strained ligament or concussion? Benched.

But that’s what makes the Jonathan Martin story so difficult to grasp for some people. The physical, tough-guy nature of the sport is such a central piece that we forget about the mental aspect altogether. One person tweeted at me yesterday that suggested Ditka’s approach was the right one. That the, “NFL is a violent game. These are violent men.”

That’s the key word here – Men.

In football, it’s easy to forget that. Sure we know their names and most their faces, but there’s an inherent disconnect we have with football players. With their helmets and facemasks and large shoulder pads, there’s a much smaller human element to football players than any other sport. And let’s be honest, we like it that way. It’s far easier to ignore the uncomfortable realities of football when you view the players as these kind of soulless, Jason Bourne type universal soldiers. Killing machines built for the sole purpose of our entertainment.

In many ways, Incognito is the perfect embodiment of that mentality. He’s a mildly talented hard ass who’s survived in the NFL mostly on being “tougher” than anyone else. Obviously, that manifested itself in some abhorrent ways, but while Incognito has never been a very likable guy or the most reliable blocker in the world, you get the feeling that he would never saddle anyone with the emotional albatross of the anguish (mental or physical) he was experiencing. To show pain for someone like Incognito, would be to show weakness.

Jonathan Martin, to both Richie Incognito and to the many who brushed his bullying off as just locker room fraternizing, was weak. And as we’ve seen throughout the history of the NFL, weakness has no place.

So if weakness has no place in the NFL – the question then becomes: Does Jonathan Martin? The Dolphins have already decided to suspend Incognito indefinitely, but he’ll likely land on another team if only because he’s 31 (not ancient by linemen standards) and a decent player who, with the right PR person, could be salvaged.

Jonathan Martin, however, remains to be seen. Obviously, there’s a certain amount of mental fortitude needed to survive in any atmosphere as intense and competitive as an NFL locker room. To have made it as far as he has speaks to Martin’s ability to deal with a great amount of pressure and scrutiny.

But when he comes back – hell, if he comes back, the perceived weakness Martin showed in walking away from this situation to deal with any emotional issues he’s facing might be too much for the Dolphins – or any other team – to take a chance on. It’s sad because while a good number within NFL organizations view Martin’s act as cowardly or weak, I view it as a tremendous show of strength.

When Trotter asked another personnel man about Incognito, they said:

“He might be an asshole, but I’m pretty sure you’d want him beside you in a bar fight.”

The NFL isn’t a bar fight. But that people call Incognito “tough as nails” while viewing Jonathan Martin as a tattle tale unequipped to deal with the rigors of the NFL proves — it can be every bit as ugly.

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One comment

  1. speaking of ‘coward’, that’s all the NFL personnel men who didn’t man-up and state their name in SI’s trotter interview. lemme guess, scared? old farts!

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