By Dennis Glade
Times Herald Columnist
---- — Race and sports are strange, but familiar bedfellows. Recently the two have gotten front-page coverage during the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation. The drama between these two offensive linemen has sparked racial debate along with a bullying discussion that nobody saw coming. Prior to this debacle, Incognito was known as a dirty offensive lineman who made cheap shots on opponents, and Martin was looked at as a struggling second-year player from Stanford.
In the weeks since Martin left the team for personal reasons and the Miami Dolphins suspended Incognito indefinitely, a new aspect of this story has surfaced seemingly everyday. At first, the story looked like that of a young player in the NFL, who couldn’t handle some teasing from teammates and appeared to have some mental problems. That narrative was evaporated when Martin released a voicemail from Incognito, in which the veteran offensive lineman was heard calling Martin a “half-N---er” along with threats to kill him and slap his mother.
The story exploded when no one saw this turn coming, not even the Dolphins brass. Coach Joe Philbin was immediately pushed centerstage and people wondered exactly what kind of environment was being fostered in South Florida. Oddly enough, Incognito, who was seen in a video at a South Florida bar spouting that same racial epithet, had the full support of many of his African American teammates, including fellow offensive lineman Mike Pouncey, wide receiver Mike Williams and linebacker Cameron Wake. Some of Incognito’s black teammates even gave him the title of an “honorary black man.”
Those words make you take a step back and shake your head. For many people the N-word conjures up strong emotions. If anything you would have thought black Miami players would have backed up Martin and not the white man using this word, but the exact reverse happened and this action did not go unnoticed. Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe, who now serves as an analyst for CBS, was extremely adamant during Sunday’s show that acceptance of this behavior from the black Miami players was extremely disrespectful to their ancestors, who worked so hard to preserve a level of respect in the African American community.
ESPN’s Michael Wilbon and TNT’s Charles Barkley have both said this week that the N-word is something that is completely acceptable among others in the black community and essentially White America doesn’t understand, but both agreed the word shouldn’t be used in a public setting.
It is one thing if Wallace, Pouncey, Wake and even Martin were using it while interacting in the locker room, but they weren’t. Incognito was using the term in a derogatory manner toward Martin, who comes from a bi-racial household. Hearing the N-word word makes you wonder what Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, or Rose Parks would have thought about the behavior of these football players. Slavery was common-place in America for more than 200 years, and hearing the N-word conjures images of abuse and degradation of thousands of human beings. I wouldn’t feel comfortable using such a charged word in public or in private.
Although progress has been made, racism is far from gone in American society. But every time Riley Cooper or Richie Incognito spout off, we take two steps back as a society.
Another facet to this story is that of bullying and how a 300-pound offensive lineman can find himself in a situation like that is surprising to say the least. In all professional sports some rookie hazing goes on, but for the most part it is playful not abusive. The hazing usually includes activities like having rookies carrying shoulder pads off the practice field, buying the team dinner, or being dumped in a cold tub. None of this appears to be remotely similar to what Martin experienced in Miami. According to reports, the Miami coaches encouraged Incognito to “toughen up” Martin. It would appear Incognito rode Martin very hard until he broke and couldn’t handle it anymore.
Martin’s parents were graduated from Harvard and he was graduated from Stanford, where he played for hard-nosed coaches Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw. You would think if he were soft, as he’s being portrayed, he wouldn’t have been able to succeed in those environments. The idea to toughen up a football player, especially an offensive lineman, who’s entire job is to protect the blindside of franchise quarterback Ryan Tannehill, wouldn’t have been such a bad idea if the Dolphins had picked a different player to carry out the training.
Instead they chose Incognito, who is infamous throughout the league for dirty hits. Police also questioned him after a woman accused him of sexual assault during a Dolphins team outing at a South Florida golf course. According to the report, Incognito used one of his golf clubs to molest an employee at the course. Despite this incident, the Dolphins kept Incognito in a leadership position with the team, which begs the question, “What exactly were the Dolphins doing putting Incognito with Martin?”
Martin is a soft-spoken, educated man who didn’t see violence toward Incognito or any other veteran as the answer to his problems. Many analysts and former players have suggested this course of action would have stopped the bullying. Martin comes from a world where intelligence, not violence will get you where you need to go. Maybe Martin isn’t cut out for the NFL, or the culture of what the football locker room entails, or maybe this is a culture that needs to be monitored more closely.
The outrage from the bullying and the racially charged encounter would suggest this kind of hazing isn’t common, but I would counter with the thought that this kind of behavior should never occur in the first place. I will defer to those who know better. I’m just an outsider hoping people can just treat each other with respect, but maybe that’s asking too much.
Dennis Glade is a lover of pitbulls and Qdoba burritos. When he’s not writing, he’s likely playing tug o’ war with his 85-pound pitbull, Toby. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org