I’ve been giving some thought to the whole Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito imbroglio that has lifted a rock off the twisted world of intimidation-as-camaraderie that exists in at least the Miami Dolphin NFL locker room. Taken out of its context such behavior makes shy men shudder and league officials very nervous. But it also reminiscent of Captain Renault’s famous line in the movie Casablanca: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”
NFL officials have been quick to condemn the hostility that Martin’s accusations uncovered, but let’s take a step back and consider the environment of violence that attends this game and the men who play it.
On Monday I posted a Veteran’s Day story telling of my father’s time in WWII, including how his experiences had coarsened him upon his return home. “The harder you live the more profane you become. ‘Gee whiz’ doesn’t work anymore.”
Author Tim O’Brien made the same observation in his highly regarded book The Things They Carry, about his time as a grunt in Viet Nam. “Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.” Well, football is nothing more than a metaphorical war, so you get what comes with it.
When Rob Reiner’s coming-of-age movie Stand By Me came out in 1986 I remember going to see it with my then girlfriend. She liked the film very much, noting later how the young boys in the film were caring and supportive of one another. While I enjoyed the movie, too, I mentioned that “boys don’t really act that way around one another, at least not in my recollection.”
“You are just a cynic,” she replied, not missing the mark so much as missing the point.
I may well have been a cynic, but having gone to an all-boys primary school and a similarly gendered high school, I was rather well-versed on how boys treat one another in such closed environments, and sensitivity isn’t what I recall.
People are now horrified at the text messages and voice mails that Incognito send Martin before Martin lost it and left the Dolphins and reported what he considered bullying to the league office. But notice how Incognito has been baffled – other teammates, too — that “his friend” could have misread that treatment as abuse.
“My actions were coming from a place of love,” he said in his interview with Jay Glazer of Fox this past Sunday. “No matter how bad and how vulgar it sounds, that’s how we communicate, that’s how our friendship was, and those are the facts.”
When my neighborhood friends and I were in grade school the way we knew we cared about each other was by the level of shit we gave one another. We used to call one another derisively by our fathers’ first names — Isham, Earl, Salvador, and Russell — because each of us had fathers with non-traditional names. It’s when you stop being mean to someone that they should get worried, because that means you are indifferent to them, and they are out of the brotherhood.
When my girlfriend accused me of not knowing what I was talking about in regards Stand By Me, I had the chance to have my point made several days later when we were playing tennis at a junior high school near her home.
While we were on one court, there a bunch of boys hanging around outside the fence nearby. Soon they began verbally harassing one another, picking on the perceived weakest among them.
“There,” I said. “That’s how boys treat friends. That’s the definition of testosterone fueled friendship. Doesn’t make it right, just true.”
Trying to change the nature of boys to comport to a more sensitive definition of acceptable behavior is to ignore the realities of this life. It’s another of society’s failed attempts at leveling the playing field so everyone comes out a winner and nobody gets hurt. Did Incognito go too far? Probably. Does Martin have thin skin? Likely. Nowhere does it say this is how we may want it to be, but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking this isn’t how it has always been. In fact, it’s the very dehumanizing severity of their environment that leads men to act in such crude, dehumanizing ways. It’s both the price and the bond for the inclusion into that world.
Kenyan runners whip themselves into shape by beating the crap out of their friends in training. Boxers do the same with their sparring partners. It’s called sharpening the tool for the serious work ahead.
If we want grown men to play a brutal game for our entertainment — or kill other men on our behalf — then don’t be surprised when they act in a brutal fashion, even to those closest to them. Even really big boys will still be boys.