Be a man. Walk it off. Play through the pain.
In football, these phrases are drilled into the heads of players from a young age. When they step on the field, they cease to be merely athletes; they are warriors, soldiers on a battlefield, involved not in sport, but in war. The sport and its organizing bodies have done little to dispute or dispel this image. The NFL, in particular, has made billions by cultivating an image of war-like imagery, from the slo-mo violence and epic orchestrations of NFL Films to the large, pickup truck-sponsored intros of its primetime games and its obsession, even in a concussion-conscious sporting world, with big hits. Culturally, the NFL has positioned itself as the ultimate masculine pastime, and despite the occasional ill-fated or ill-informed breast cancer or female-targeted marketing campaign, it rarely wavers from catering to the most base desires of our patriarchal society.
In recent years, however, the NFL’s culture has begun to be a problem. The issue of concussions has dogged the NFL, especially in 2013 with the release of damming documentary evidence and a civil settlement with former players. It has also seen high-profile athletes injure themselves while “playing through the pain,” and called into question the communication between team doctors and coaches on the matter.
This weekend, however, exposed how that aggressive masculinity may have more private effects within NFL locker rooms.
Last week, Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin left the team after being subjected to near-constant abuse and bullying at the hands of teammate Richie Incognito throughout his first year and a half in the league. Incognito hurled threats and racial slurs at Martin via text message and voice mail, according to multiple sources and as a result, Incognito was suspended from the team indefinitely, and the content of the abuse was made public.
The interaction between Incognito and Martin is troubling on a large number of levels, especially in a modern society that often has trouble dealing with well-educated black men (Martin was a classics major at Stanford, the son of two Harvard graduates, and his intellect and background seem to have been some of the sources of Incognito’s ire). But what exposed the cultural issue in the NFL specifically isn’t the abuse as much as it has been the response from other players to the scandal. While some, like Bart Scott, have been outspoken and supportive of Martin, many other players have defaulted to the same hypermasculine rhetoric that allowed a bullying atmosphere to exist in the first place.
Some anonymous members of the Dolphins organization have called Martin “soft” and a “weak person”. Other players, like the Giants’ Antrel Rolle and the Broncos’ Terrance Knighton, have echoed similar sentiments, saying that Martin should have “[been] a man” and broke the unspoken “code” of the locker room by leaving it. It all falls back on that same cliche, that same phrase that permeates the sport: be a man.
Make no mistake about it: Richie Incognito, should all the evidence so far prove to be factual, is a despicable, troubled, bully with his fair share of demons who would, in a just world, never play another down in the NFL. However, the sad fact of the matter is that behavior like his is often more acceptable in the NFL than Martin’s. In football, being soft spoken and thoughtful isn’t as desired by coaches or general managers as being aggressive and loud. Play-through-the-whistle killer instinct is more valued than being intellectual. Aggression trumps calm.
It’s a problem that bleeds over into non-football matters. 21 of the 32 teams in the league had at least one player on their rosters last year with a history of domestic violence, and those men are statistically less likely to be held legally accountable for their actions than the rest of the population. Since 2007, there have been an average of 15 NFL players arrested each year for drunk driving. While there is a possibility, according to researchers, that concussion-related illnesses like CTE can lead to an increase of aggression, there’s no question that much of the aggressive behavior of football players can be blamed on the nature of the sport itself and of the culture that surrounds it.
Jonathan Martin’s case is, hopefully, an exception in terms of severity of hazing and bullying in the NFL. There may even end up being a silver lining in the entire ordeal if it can lead to a better understanding of how bullying can effect anyone, regardless of size or career, or if the NFL realizes that an emotional support system should be available for both the bullied and the bullies. But in the world of the locker room, where players govern themselves, it will take a lot more than this public shame to change this culture of aggression.