Friday, November 08, 2013

At the cross roads of the culture of football...


Richie Incognito abused his position as team leader.  It may be the case that hazing and rough talk are part of the culture of the NFL locker room, particularly among linemen, and coaches may have encouraged him to toughen up Jonathan Martin.  But it seems that, reading the story, Incognito had, to borrow a term from the gridiron, a significant number of yards after the catch.   Extending a hazing period into a second year, using racial slurs, and paying for trips seem to have crossed from playing his role in the overall culture to taking advantage of it.

I don't care if Incognito is a racist.  One of the problems we have is that we only have a few things we are willing to condemn (racism, sexism, rape, marital infidelity), and when we encounter behavior we don't like, we try to cram it into one of those boxes.  Incognito's behavior doesn't fit neatly into any of those boxes, but he used a racial slur, so maybe we can nail him as a racist!

Well, no.  Incognito's use of the slur seems to be more out of a general pattern of bullying than a sense of racial superiority.  I don't know what Incognito's attitudes toward race are, and and I don't have to to condemn his behavior.  If you assign any race to both Incognito and Martin, his behavior would be no less troubling.

Having said that, I do have some sympathy for Incognito.   I heard a good bit of commentary about the Dolphins players coming to Incognito's defense, and the bottom line seems to be that, given a choice, most players would rather have Incognito as a teammate than Martin.  The culture of football has historically been one that filters out sensitive, thoughtful, intelligent people like Martin and filters in scrappy, tough, rough around the edges people like Incognito.

But that's in the midst of a change, and Incognito is caught in the middle of it.  We are starting to confront the long-term damage the game has had on people, with Tony Dorsett  being the latest example.  Both college and pro teams are being invaded by a crew of offensive wizards implementing increasingly complex systems.  Stanford has been a top 5 football program for several years now, and Northwestern and Vanderbilt have moved up in their conferences. The head coach of the Dallas Cowboys is a Harvard graduate, and another is a starting quarterback.  The biggest star in the leagues is a 38 year old quarterback who ideally never gets his uniform dirty.

Yes, there's still line play and toughness in the trenches, but this is considered more of a necessary evil than the soul of the game.  Sure, offensive linemen have never been stars, but at least before the skill players were, not the coaches. In today's game, even running backs are considered commodities.

One theme of the commentary is that outsiders can't understand NFL locker rooms.  On the contrary, I think most of us have a pretty good idea about the culture of NFL locker rooms, and we're pretty sure we don't like it.  It's too politically incorrect, too Southern, too white, too brash, too stereotypically male. But we put up with it as part of the price for our entertainment.

Football has emerged as our national entertainment, particularly for men, in part because it rewards the virtues society value from men.  But the culture has moved form celebrating (stereotypically speaking) the Richie Incognitos to the Jonathan Martins, and while football has been moving in that direction, it hasn't quite caught up yet.

Sports has been one refuge from the polarization of America, but perhaps that was illusory.  I'm not sure how much longer Blue America will tolerate a sport that celebrates Richie Incognitos and chases away Jonathan Martins.  Just as boxing eventually became too much to support and fell by the wayside (in favor of MMA which is even more aggressively barbaric), I wonder if football can continue to attract fans of both the physical action and the more cerebral part of the game, or if it will give way to purer pursuits.

Richie Incognito was a bully, but he may also have been a victim, doing what has always been valued, only to find out we don't value it anymore.