OPINION – The beef between Miami Dolphins Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito, who Martin said used racial slurs against him, bulled him, harassed him, and physically attacked him, is a stark reminder that even big, tough guys can feel emotional pain and that the threat of bullies reaches far wider than the playground.
We watch these behemoths of the NFL crash into each other at frightening speeds on Sundays; we watch them limp off the field, get patched up with tape and braces and return to the game; we watch them get battered into senselessness to the point where they don’t even know their names.
But, we forget that beneath it all, these are human beings with feelings, weaknesses, insecurities.
The NFL is a tough place to make a living.
I remember, as a sportswriter many years ago, covering pro football games and seeing the aftermath of 60 minutes of violent collisions. I’ve been on airplanes with football players who suddenly realized they had broken bones, torn muscles and ligaments, and other injuries that were masked by sideline or locker room injections by team doctors and a couple rolls of tape.
It’s not a pretty picture.
It’s not easy to make it to the NFL ranks and even more difficult to hang on to your job once you get there. There’s always somebody younger, bigger, faster, tougher looking to knock you off the depth chart.
It makes the locker room a powder keg where primal instincts and attitudes prevail as pampered jocks act out in socially unacceptable manner.
It filters down through the college ranks, into high school, and, I’ll dare say, even to the youth leagues, where boys are expected to be men; where young hopefuls are taught to play through the pain; where toughness can be more important, in the eyes of some coaches, than talent; where, despite their bad behavior, they are coddled because they can run faster than the other guy.
I was there a long time ago. I remember not missing a game or practice in high school after severely injuring a shoulder that’s still not right. I was taped up and given a brace to support a knee that got blown out by a late hit in practice the following year. I earned a lot of toughness points from my teammates and coaches, but to this day, frequently walk with a limp and cannot throw a tennis ball farther than 20 or 30 feet.
Back then, we were taught things that are no longer allowed. The chop block, where you take the opponent out at the knees, was something our coaches taught us. Tackles? You led with your head. If you, somehow, managed to bust your helmet or your opponent’s helmet, you were a big deal. Never mind that you got your bell rung pretty bad, you got more tough points from your coaches and teammates.
But, even with the changes to the game to protect the players and, hopefully, reduce the number of serious injuries, nothing has been done to change the locker room culture, which Incognito is blaming for his behavior.
There is reason to believe Incognito is just a pile of trouble to begin with, especially when it was learned last week that in May 2012, a woman who had volunteered at a Dolphins’ charity outing contacted police and accused Incognito of harassing and molesting her during the event.
We don’t know all of the specifics because there was a settlement paid and the woman signed a document promising not to air the dirty laundry.
It’s typical of pro teams to do all they can to keep their players out of court, out of jail, and off the front pages. Long ago, they realized how much silence season tickets and a check with a lot of zeroes on it can buy.
And, while it is typical that people in the public eye are often singled out for unfair treatment by people with petty minds and spiteful hearts who use their position to make life miserable for the person who looks, speaks, or acts differently, this isn’t one of those instances.
Incognito comes across as a crass, bullying, violent, racist. Crass because he fails to admit that his behavior is inexcusable; a bully for his intimidation of his rookie teammate; violent for attacking his teammate; and a racist for his use of the N-word.
A recent Sports Illustrated story about this sorry issue included quotes from a former teammate who was cut from the team.
“Playing football is a man’s job, and if there’s any weak link, it gets weeded out,” Lydon Murtha, who played with the Dolphins from 2009 until the 2012 preseason, said. “What people want to call bullying is something that is never going away from football. This is a game of high testosterone, with men hammering their bodies on a daily basis. You are taught to be an aggressive person, and you typically do not make it to the NFL if you are a passive person.”
Murtha also hinted at even more serious behavior.
“What fans should understand is that every day in the NFL there are battles between players worse than what’s being portrayed,” he said. “This racial slur would be a blip on the radar if everything that happens in the locker room went public. But all over the league, problems are hashed out in house. Either you talk about it or you get physical. But at the end of the day, you handle it indoors.”
In other words, what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room. Or, in instances, such as Incognito’s run-in with the woman volunteer, what happens in public gets buried under a pile of cash.
No bad days!
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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