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The emergent nature of the NFL locker room

The Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin story fascinates me. Both are very very large men who made their living on the offensive line of the Miami Dolphins. Jonathan Martin has left the team alleging he was bullied, harassed, and pranked by Incognito. Worst of all, Martin who is African-American, said that Incognit0 (you couldn’t pick a better name, could you for this story?) threatened him with violence in a text or phone message and used the n-word. When Martin went public with these claims, the Dolphins suspended Incognito. A very ugly story. Embarrassed, the NFL launched an investigation.

Then the story got a little more complicated. Many of the Dolphins, including many African-American members of the team, stood up for Richie Incognito. They said that Richie Incognito was a good guy. They said that Incognito and Martin were friends. They said that the prank that so hurt Martin–everyone leaving the cafeteria table when Martin sat down for lunch–was something that happens all the time to rookies and younger players. Incognito claimed that he had received a Martin text where Martin threatened to kill his f***ing family and that this was the kind of rough humor the two exchanged. Such communication was just the way they bantered back and forth. Neither took it seriously. Some have said that Martin broke the code. He should have kept his problems in-house. He shouldn’t have gone to the press. If Incognito was rubbing him the wrong way he should have punched him.

Martin is a Stanford grad who majored in Classics. He evidently did not find the atmosphere of an NFL locker room very pleasant. I don’t think I would either. I found the JV soccer locker room of my high school soccer team a little intimidating. I can only imagine what the NFL is like.

All of this takes place in a world that is extremely sensitive to all kinds of bullying among young people that adults are eager to reduce. But is bullying the right word for what happens between two men who each weigh about 300 pounds?

Despite these twists in the story, a number of columnists have continued to decry Incognito’s behavior and express outrage. William Rhoden writes in the New York Times:

Indeed, the underlying tension between Martin and Incognito shows that the locker room culture needs to change. We keep hearing how football is different, that somehow the physical nature of the game excuses boorish behavior. That’s nonsense.

He says later:

The vexing issue raised by professional football and crystallized by Incognito and Martin is: Whom do you want defending your quarterback, a bully or a pacifist? Must it be either-or? With so much money on the line, winning becomes paramount and talent repeatedly trumps character.

At ESPN, Ashley Fox writes:

Somewhere along the way it became OK for Richie Incognito to harass Jonathan Martin. That is definitely not OK. And it can never happen again.

The locker room is a place for bonding and ribbing and joking, but it is also a place for business. In the NFL, it is part of the workplace. It is not exempt from the laws that apply to Fortune 500 companies or mom-and-pop shops.

I understand the urge to reduce cruelty in the world. But I want to reserve expressions like “it can never happen again” for the Holocaust or slavery. Cruel verbal behavior isn’t something we want to keep from happening again. One of the reasons is that we don’t really know how to stop it in ways that actually might be effective.

The culture of the NFL locker room is emergent. Yes, the coach has some control over it. But the control is limited. These are large men who once a week make a living in a violent often unpleasant way. To be outraged over bullying in this environment is to misunderstand the world these people live in. It’s a tough world. It’s not like my world or your world. It’s a painful world. It’s a world where every player plays hurt. Linemen in particular play with broken bones. There is plenty of ego at the New York Times and ESPN and I’m sure newcomers there can be intimidated and even treated cruelly. But probably not like the NFL. It’s probably worse in the NFL for lots of people. But there’s a reason for it. And it’s not something you can “fix” with some new rules or regulations or an investigation.

The culture of an NFL locker room emerges from the bottom up and not the top down. It emerges because of what’s at stake every Sunday–the money and the pride and the glory–and it emerges from the people who are able to play through pain knowing that they may have trouble walking when they’re forty. They’re not normal. They are surely not physically normal. But they are probably not emotionally normal either. They cope with the challenges of their work environment by creating a very tight knit camaraderie of social interaction that you and I can’t begin to understand. How can you judge those men? If you don’t like the heat, you don’t have to work in the kitchen. Jonathan Martin has left the kitchen. I don’t blame him. I would, too.

The other part that’s strange about the outrage is that if you’re going to be outraged about the NFL, be outraged by the violence and the pain and the concussions and the possible brain damage and the shame and humiliation of failure that is witnessed by millions ever week. But bullying is the thing that has to stop? Because it’s a workplace? Ashley Fox is probably right–the laws of the workplace probably do apply to the NFL. But I can’t imagine how you enforce those rules. And what she misses and what Rhoden misses is that most of the men who work in that workplace like it the way it is. The men who play know that they are elite and rare. They are part of a community we can’t begin to understand. How do you understand grown men who try to hurt each other for three hours on a Sunday afternoon embracing each other when it’s over?

It’s not for everyone. It looks like it’s not for Jonathan Martin. But I have trouble condemning Richie Incognito when his own teammates come to his defense. That should tell everyone that something more complicated is going on here than one worker harassing another. I’m not saying Incognito is a nice guy or someone I’d want to spend a lot of time with. I’m just saying it’s more complicated than the original story made it out to be.

That’s not to say that the culture of the NFL locker room will never change. When I went to high school, in a public school in a nice suburb of Boston in the late 1960’s, the tough kids did very cruel things to the geeky kids. Mostly petty humiliation. For better or worse, I wasn’t geeky enough to suffer from those cruelties–kids knocked down just walking, their books sent flying, kids’ clothes stolen so that they would have to go through the day in their gym clothes, petty humiliations in gym class and the locker room, and sometimes worse. I escaped these but I was afraid of them. Forty years later, I can remember who suffered from those acts but not the perpetrators. I suspect the victims remember them, too.  They were acts of cruelty. Nobody was beat up or physically hurt. Just bullying. It was unpleasant.

I doubt that goes on anymore. Something has changed and it’s probably for the better. But it changes slowly over time and most of the change comes from the inside not the outside. The locker room of the NFL might someday be a gentler more pleasant place. Maybe the outrage of journalists will contribute to that change. But little is going to change in the NFL locker room until the people who work there want it to change and my guess, based on what we’ve heard from Miami, is that most of the players like the bravado and banter and yes, even the occasional cruelty that takes place. You may wish it were otherwise. If so, your best bet for avoiding it is to choose a different profession. And if it offends you, stop watching football. It’s a brutal game and what takes place on the field is oh so much crueler and more public than what takes place behind closed doors.