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.”

paint1When 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.


14 thoughts on “BOYS WILL BE BOYS

  1. Toni, you know that Incognito called Martin a “half-nigger piece of shit,” right?

    You compare this to Kenyan runners pushing each other in training?

    Sorry, you’re out to lunch on this one. Stick to the running talk.

  2. This is the type of apologist rant that has been used to justify all manner of injustices through history. I don’t see why it’s acceptable for boys or men to do this to each other, but no school teacher can come even slightly close to this, There used to be a time that school teachers were allowed to do the same, using corporal punishment and all manners of humiliating indignities. As a society we decided this was no longer acceptable. In fact we have gone so far that we have completely hamstrung teachers, but that is another conversation. There comes a time we have to assess the way we train young men and boys. All the wars and aggression through history are the end product of the type of thinking expressed in this article.

    Yes, Women share secrets to bond, and men tease, even taunt each other to bond. However, there is a line. It is not a clear line, but let me assure you, that Richie Incognito crossed it. Richie Incognito left a trail of bullying and unacceptable behavior in his wake from grade school to the his time in the NFL. We as a society allow bullying, and that’s why we have the Richie Incognitos of the world. We have to stop and say no more. We as a society have to be a bigger bully to the bullies, because being the cowards they are, that’s the only thing that gets bullies to stop. Back in grade school, two bullies never fought each other. It was always a bully picking on a weakling. The only thing I see in this behavior is cowardice. There is nothing noble here as the author would somehow like us to imagine.

    1. Keith,

      I couldn’t agree with you more that Richie Incognito is a classic macho meathead, but to this day he doesn’t think what he did to Jonathan Martin was bullying. Either did his teammates. Only Jonathan Martin saw it as such.

      The behavior was wrong, absolutely, and something should be done to ameliorate it. But bullying, like the war against drugs or the war on poverty, cannot be cured or eradicated. That doesn’t mean do nothing, but unfortunately, bullying is part of the human condition, and very much a part of any macho environment like the NFL or the USA, for that matter.

      I’m not trying to be an apologist for this behavior, in fact, like so many guys that go into running, I was a puny kid who got picked on. But I just transferred the same behavior to my younger brother, rather than empathize with his position. It’s called being a partially evolved male. Girls don’t do it, too. So, yes, we must continue to teach against it, even as we acknowledge the nature of it.

  3. You are arguing the exceptions as the rule. Many boxers have had criminal records. But even at the grade school level football is taught as a violent activity, and those who are better at dishing it out are praised. And just look how the game of basketball, invented as a non-contact game, has gone off those rails. I just heard Pop Warner participation is down 9.5% due the head trauma worries. Whether we agree with it or not, we are a violent people, and once you let that genie out of the bottle it is very hard to try and coax him back in.

    1. Actually, I think you are the one who is arguing the exceptions. Yes, many boxers have had criminal records, but many have not (and probably more than the former). Most guys know there is a line not to be crossed – even in NFL locker rooms – and don’t cross it. But even if I am wrong, why should we settle for that?? To say “we are a violent people” says we should go back to the old west and have shootouts in the street, but of course we don’t do that anymore because we have, as a society, matured and advanced.
      And by the way, there is also an business component to this which we haven’t touched on yet. Jonathon Martin is a very, very good football player – good enough to be a starter on an NFL team. But now he has left the team and the Dolphins’ offensive line will be worse off as a result.

      1. “Jonathon Martin is a very, very good football player – good enough to be a starter on an NFL team”

        From Wiki:
        “Martin had started the first 12 games of the season at right tackle, ranking 63rd out of the 69 NFL tackles who had played at least 300 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus’ grading system.

        “For the 2013 season, Martin was slotted at left tackle in order to replace Long, who had left in free agency, and was noted to struggle throughout the early part of the season in pass protection.”

        Perhaps not so good…

  4. Hi Toni,
    I have to strongly disagree with your assessment. While it is true that boys often mock and taunt their friends, bullies mock and taunt their victims, as well. The differences may be subtle, but are still very, very real, and not just because the victim is “weak” (BTW, thanks for that bit of victim-blaming there. That seems to be an essential part of the Bully’s Defense). It’s also important to remember that you are describing BOYS and not MEN. Boys are also the ones who gawk at women’s breasts and make inappropriate comments, but we should and do expect more out of men.
    It is also important to remember that locker rooms – or any close-knit community – do not have to be that way. Most successful organizations, including sports teams, breed cultures of respect and mutual support. While there is certainly “horsing around,” everyone also knows there is a line not to be crossed, but Incognito seemed to cross that line repeatedly. Lastly, let’s not forget that Incognito has a very troubled history – enough to get him arrested, convicted and kicked out of 2 Division I football programs. One of them after just 2 weeks! – which I think gives him just about zero credibility.
    Really, Toni, I think you missed the mark on this one in a very big way. Defending a guy like Richie Incognito and the culture he represents is worse than defending a doper, which is something I know you would never do.

    1. Greg,

      I knew this was a sensitive topic, and it’s good to have both sides represented. Richie Incognito may well be the poster boy for bullying, and has that very troubling background, as you say. But the final straw for Jon Martin was when guys at the lunchroom table got up and left when he sat down. Could it get any more like high school than that? I’m sure the better teams in the league are less troubled by such behavior, but winning covers up for a lot of sins. I still think there’s a world of difference between the extreme physicality of the NFL and the normal everyday workplace. There is also an infantilizing aspect to these men who have allowed to play a boy’s game their entire lives. Not surprising, then, when they act childishly. In any case, thanks for the contribution to the discussion.


      1. Toni,
        You may be right about the “infantilizing aspect,” but I don’t see that as an excuse. Recently (and I see this as somehow related, or at least in that same vein), Incognito argued that football runs on aggression and violence (more than most), and it can be hard to turn that off. But Lennox Lewis and Victor Klitchko (sp) are heavyweight boxers, but apparently are also perfect gentlemen. So yes, of course there is a difference (who among us wouldn’t want to get paid to play a game for a living), but I just think we should demand that grown-ups should act like grown-ups.

  5. Spot on. Curt Schilling on WEEI today discussed this and said (paraphrasing) “there are two places where this kind of behavior takes place , in the professional locker room and field of battle”. He was more surprised it ever made it to the level of discussion it has reached.

    1. What the hell would Curt Schilling know about the field of battle?????? And besides, making an analogy between sports and war is incredibly insulting.

    2. BTW, if we’re going to talk about Boston sports, reporters who cover the New England Patriots insist that the Patriots would never allow that kind of behavior in their locker room and they have been a lot more successful over the past decade than Miami has. Bill Belichick would say that is not an accident.

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