Terra Incognito

by Daniel Foster
The Miami Dolphins’ bullying scandal is a stew of our cultural preoccupations.

The National Football League has a self-explanatory designation for injured players: “physically unable to perform.” The PUP list lets the players who are on it stay under contract, attend meetings, and use team training facilities while not counting toward the 53-man active roster. But last week, second-year offensive tackle Jonathan Martin left the Miami Dolphins’ active squad under the same terms, for what is officially designated a “non-football injury” but would more sensibly be described as his entry into the “emotionally unable to perform” list.

At issue is what Martin’s recently hired lawyer — David Cornwell, who notoriously sprung Brewers slugger Ryan Braun (temporarily, it turns out) from a 50-game suspension by arguing that a positive PED test was tainted — called a season and a half of “harassment that went far beyond the traditional locker room hazing,” including “daily vulgar comments” about, among other topics, his race and his sister’s genitals, as well as a “malicious physical attack” by an unnamed teammate.

The ringleader of this organized bullying (if that’s an apt phrase, which I think it is not, but more on that presently) is supposed to be one Richie Incognito, a Volkswagen of a man and the unofficial leader of the Dolphins’ O-line before he was suspended indefinitely in the wake of Martin’s departure.

First, a word about the belligerents. Incognito is a Jersey-born mauler chosen in the third round of the 2005 NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams. In the pros, he has routinely demonstrated above-average talent at a position — interior offensive line — where keeping talent is relatively cheap for franchises. Despite this, the Rams waived him in the middle of 2009, after the second game that season in which he was pulled for multiple personal fouls (this time, head-butting opponents) and an on-field shouting match with head coach Steve Spagnuolo.

It was part of a pattern for Incognito, who had started his college career as a Nebraska Cornhusker but withdrew from that school after three seasons that saw game ejections, multiple team suspensions, and a misdemeanor assault conviction. His transfer to the University of Oregon lasted all of a week, ending after he violated the terms of conduct he’d established with coaches there. The rap sheet sent Incognito, who possessed first-round talent and explosiveness, sinking down teams’ draft boards.

In the NFL, where talent too often trumps trouble, Incognito got a job quickly after his dismissal from St. Louis, as a mercenary rental for the Bills down the stretch. And when Buffalo, which had what amounted to a right of first refusal, failed to re-sign him during the offseason, he found what looked like a long-term home with the Dolphins, where he was apparently well liked by teammates despite cementing his reputation as the dirtiest player in the league.

Then there is Jonathan Martin. In contrast to the tattooed Incognito — who can be seen in a video raging, drunk and shirtless, through a bar in broad daylight — Martin came from three generations of Harvardians. These included his great-grandfather, one of twelve African Americans in the class of ’24; his grandfather and father, who went on to be respected academics; and his mother, a successful corporate lawyer. Martin’s idea of youthful rebellion was to break the Cambridge legacy and study classics at lowly Stanford. There he shined as a smart, athletic defender of Andrew Luck’s blindside. The sole knock on Martin coming out of college was that he was a finesse player, lacking elite size and toughness for the tackle position. But the Dolphins, who use a zone-blocking scheme that favors the nimble over the brute, liked what they saw and took him in the second round last year.

The troubles apparently started almost immediately, with Incognito, according to some reports, being told by coaches to “toughen up” Martin, and in any event recognizing him as a soft target. Incognito enlisted his fellow linemen to give Martin a rough go of it, joining in on the racially charged name-calling (Incognito calls Martin a “half-n*****” on a voicemail), the intimidation (hitting Martin up for 15 grand to fund a Vegas trip he didn’t attend), and the ostracizing (by some accounts, a stunt in which the line left a dining table as Martin sat down was the last straw).

Both Martin and Incognito remain Dolphins in name, but the smart money is that neither will ever play another snap for Miami. Their twisted relationship — Cornwell said Martin tried to befriend Incognito in an effort to get him to back off — and the subsequent revelations and recriminations have proven to be of more than passing interest to fans and non-fans alike. Perhaps that’s because the saga is a veritable stew of America’s current sociocultural preoccupations: namely, the crisis of masculinity, the menace of “bullying,” and the paradoxes of race.

Let’s take them in reverse order. The racial issue is tangential but instructive. Incognito’s deployment of the verbal napalm that is the N-word helped ossify his villain’s status in the public imagination. But peculiarly, teammates (including black teammates) have to a man defended Incognito from charges of bigotry, with one even going so far as to say the biracial Martin was considered by the team to be “less black” than the Caucasian Incognito:

”Richie is honorary,” one player who left the Dolphins this offseason told me today. “I don’t expect you to understand because you’re not black. But being a black guy, being a brother is more than just about skin color. It’s about how you carry yourself. How you play. Where you come from. What you’ve experienced. A lot of things.”

Compare Incognito with wide receiver Riley Cooper of the Philadelphia Eagles, an equally lily-white player, and at one time as popular with black teammates, who was roundly condemned by them for using the N-word in a non-football context earlier this year. Running back LeSean McCoy went so far as to tell reporters the incident made him feel like he was “losing a friend.” An investigation of the distinctions that made a difference in these two cases would no doubt make a useful dissertation in African-American studies, and a guide for the perplexed in the Minotaur’s maze of racial discourse in 2013 America.

But this aggravating circumstance aside, the central question in the affair would seem to be: Was Jonathan Martin bullied by Richie Incognito and others? If you’ll forgive the remedial rhetorical trick: Merriam-Webster defines a “bully” as “a blustering browbeating person; especially one habitually cruel to others who are weaker” (emphasis in original). Incognito is by all accounts a browbeating blusterer, and worse. But it is the qualification that is characteristic of the bully: one who is habitually, relentlessly cruel, and cruel to those who are not in a position to fight back.

It is an open question whether the behavior of Incognito amounted to relentless cruelty. To be sure, saying and doing the things Incognito is alleged to have said and done would not fly in just about any profession in the world. But the NFL isn’t just any profession, and perhaps the most surprising feature of the unfolding story is that most of Incognito’s colleagues, from his teammates to the opponents who hate him most, reject the characterization of Incognito’s actions as bullying.

Here is Lydon Murtha, a Dolphin from 2009 to 2012, who played along the line with Incognito and Martin:

[Incognito] was a leader on the team, and he would get in your face if you were unprepared or playing poorly. The crap he would give Martin was no more than he gave anyone else, including me. Other players said the same things Incognito said to Martin, so you’d need to suspend the whole team if you suspend Incognito. . . . That’s where Incognito ran into a problem. Personally, I know when a guy can’t handle razzing. You can tell that some guys just aren’t built for it. Incognito doesn’t have that filter.

Murtha goes on to dismiss the Vegas and cafeteria incidents as overblown and out of context and says that the Dolphins coaches knew exactly what was going on and even encouraged it as a way to bring the “standoffish” Martin “out of his shell.”

Other players around the league focused on Martin’s failure to stand up for himself in the face of presumed abuse.

“Is Incognito wrong? Absolutely. He’s 100 percent wrong,” said Giants safety Antrel Rolle. “But at the same time, Jonathan Martin is a 6-4, 320-pound man. I mean, at some point and time you need to stand your ground as an individual. Am I saying go attack, go fight him? No. I think we all understand we can stand our ground without anything being physical.”

Hell, even Incognito’s worst enemies laid the blame largely at Martin’s feet:

Houston Texans Antonio Smith, who has accused Incognito of dirty play since they went against each other in college, said Martin should have responded more forcefully. Smith drew a three-game suspension this year for taking Incognito’s helmet and hitting him during an exhibition game.

“I don’t think that, in my opinion, a grown man should get bullied,” Smith said. “And I think that if you’re realistically getting bullied, there’s only one way my mom taught me and my dad taught me how to get rid of bullies. They used to always say, ‘You hit a bully in the mouth. It will stop him from bullying, no matter what you hit him with.’”

We rightly worry about bullying in our schools because children by definition lack the agency of adults, because they are not in a position to fully understand their options for seeking help, and because their immaturity and lack of perspective can make bullying seem an inescapable and existential condition. This combination can lead to tragic outcomes, like the twelve-year-old Florida girl who recently jumped to her death after persistent bullying at school.

But as Smith puts it plainly, Jonathan Martin is a “grown man,” both physically powerful and intelligent, with considerable financial resources and a support structure of family, friends, union representatives, agents, lawyers, and managers. Perhaps Martin suffers from emotional problems, as evinced by reports that he is currently in counseling in California — but then, as the recently acquired Dolphins tackle Bryant McKinnie put it bluntly, “If you had all these problems, maybe this is not your occupation.”

To think that McKinnie and the others might have a point, as I do, is not to side with Incognito — who was and remains, along with whatever else he is, an ass on and off the field, with an admittedly broad portfolio of personal demons himself. His suspension is reasonable and possibly just the beginning — if he did physically attack Martin, further action would be warranted.

Neither is it to shame Martin as “soft” or “weak” for leaving the team or seeking mental help. That idea, as Grantland’s Brian Phillips colorfully put it, is “some room-temperature faux-macho alpha-pansy nonsense,” spread more by comment-thread action-heroes and sports-talk loudmouths in six-button suits than by the banged-up sliver of Übermenschen who have actually been part of an NFL locker room.

No. Acknowledging that maybe Jonathan Martin didn’t act as he should have, and that maybe he’d be better off outside the NFL than in it, is about understanding cultural pluralism, and about having a healthy wariness of attempts to level every American institution into a sedate, aggression-free trust circle of non-judgment and understanding.

Phillips affectingly writes of America as a “nation of gentle accountants and customer-service reps who’ve retained this one venue” — the National Football League — “where we can air-guitar the berserk discourse of a warrior race.” But he says that like it’s a bad thing. On the contrary, this compartmentalization and channeling of destructive impulses into less harmful endeavors — recognized in Freud’s concept of sublimation and William James’s “moral equivalent of war” — is the hallmark of a civilized people. Every institutional order needs it. The Amish need their Rumspringa, Europe needs Amsterdam, and a nation of gentle accountants needs the National Football League.

The violence and untempered masculinity of football is ritualized, highly choreographed, and controlled. There are elaborate rules and a heritable culture that prevent it from spilling into pure gladiatorial combat. It’s hardly perfect — indeed, the concussion epidemic could prove a fatal flaw — but no system is. This is the culture that enabled and even encouraged the Dolphin O-line’s hazing of Martin, and the culture that is critical of Martin for not handling this hazing “indoors.”

It might be true that Incognito went too far, but in relying on the same concept of bullying that applies to the schoolyard, and reflexively condemning any behavior that whiffs of masculine aggression, we risk holding football to a standard that was explicitly never meant for it. And it ignores that an exceptional institution requires exceptional men — that it’s no easy trick to lower the testosterone without lowering the bar.

The first pop-cultural encapsulation of this sentiment that occurred to me comes from the great Jimmy Dugan, who said (of another sport): “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard . . . is what makes it great.” But in an uncomfortably clever series of tweets, Bleacher Report’s Adam Jacobi hits on another film that even more closely tracks the moral structure of the Dolphins saga: A Few Good Men.

Imagining Dolphins coach Joe Philbin as Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup, Jacobi modifies Nicholson’s most famous speech but little:

You have the luxury of not knowing what coaches know. That Martin’s departure, while tragic, probably saved [Dolphins quarterback] Ryan Tannehill’s life.

And Richie Incognito’s existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves quarterbacks’ lives.

You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about on Twitter, you want him on that line. YOU NEED HIM ON THAT LINE.

The moral conclusion of Aaron Sorkin’s script for A Few Good Men is that the young Marines on trial are guilty not of murdering Private Santiago but of being complicit in the institutional culture that led to his death. Probably that’s right. Maybe it’s even an apt comparison. But it doesn’t change the fact that Santiago was in the wrong line of work.

— Daniel Foster is a political consultant and former news editor of National Review Online.