Race, Bullying, and Masculinity

The recent developments of Miami Dolphins players Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito has caused a media storm and is another feather in the hat of the National Football Leagues increasingly negative image. While the NFL has vehemently denied the physical trauma that football players endure during their careers for the sake of the game, now more skeletons have fallen out of the NFL’s closet. The culture of the gridiron is a landscape where the production of psychological and emotional abuse had left Jonathan Martin without any alternatives but to leave from an unhealthy work environment. The infrastructure of the Miami Dolphins organization is a microcosm of the NFL. It seems as though the Miami Dolphins have created a culture, a mode of existing where physical and psychological abuse is endorsed for the sake of the NFL keeping its status as being the most popular, the most profitable, and arguably the most violent sport today. The institutional maintenance of the Miami Dolphins conveys to us the reality of how race, bullying, and hyper masculinity play in the culture of the National Football League.

On October 30, 2013, it was reported that Martin had left team facilities two days earlier, citing “emotional” reasons. It was initially reported that he had been mistreated by some teammates during lunch that day when they asked him to sit with them, but then promptly got up and left the table when he sat down. Martin was subsequently listed on the injury report with an unspecified injury and missed the Dolphins’ game on October 31. It was later reported that during this period Martin had briefly checked into a hospital for emotional distress before flying to his parents’ home in California, where he is “preparing a detailed document for his cooperation with a league investigation into a string of alleged multiple incidents he says led to his emotional distress and exit from the team.”

On November 2, it was reported that Richie Incognito’s ring-leading role in the harassment of Martin dating as far back as the 2012 season was being reviewed by the NFL Players Association. On November 3, Incognito was suspended by the Dolphins for “conduct detrimental to the team.” The next day, it was reported that Incognito had sent numerous texts and voicemails making threats against Martin and Martin’s family.

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the most egregious of these exchanges was a highly graphic voicemail Incognito left in April 2013, in which Incognito called Martin a “half-n—- piece of sh–,” threatened to slap Martin’s mother across the face and even uttered a death threat against Martin. Until obtaining the tape from Martin’s legal team, the Dolphins had publicly maintained the charges against Incognito were pure speculation. Schefter said that as late as the afternoon of November 3, the Dolphins didn’t even know the voicemail even existed. However, within hours of hearing the tape, Incognito had been suspended. It is alleged that the Miami Dolphins hand-picked Richie incognito to “toughen up” Jonathan Martin making them complicit in this ordeal.

Trying to defend what is left of his character and reputation, Incognito told FOX Sports’ in an exclusive interview that the specific voicemail was intended to “shock” Martin, who had skipped a voluntary offseason workout.”I wanted him to call me back,” Incognito said. “When the words are put in context, I understand why eyebrows got raised. But people don’t understand how Jon and I communicate with each other.” Conveniently, Richie Incognito deploys his “white male privilege card” that allows him to use racial slurs nonchalantly toward his Black teammates, but he can excuse himself for the historical oppression, disenfranchisement, and stigma of the language just by simply apologizing.

Richie Incognito has a reputation that precedes him all across the NFL. According to Hall of Famer Warren Sapp, “One time he kicks me in a game and calls me the ‘N-word. I look at him and I say, ‘Oh, you want me to punch you in the mouth so they kick me out the game? Hate is a strong word but I’ve always hated Incognito,” former defensive player Lawrence Jackson said on Twitter. “Just for perspective, he’s the guy that makes you want to spit in his face.” Former teammate Cam Cleeland said, “I’m not afraid to say that (Incognito) was an immature, unrealistic scumbag. “When it came down to it, he had no personality, he was a locker-room cancer, and he just wanted to fight everybody all the time. It was bizarre beyond belief.” This is the kind of man that the Miami Dolphins elected to their Leadership Council.

One of the most troubling aspects of the Jonathan Martin-Incognito bullying saga was the response of the African-American players of the Miami Dolphins. The attitudes and perspective of the African-American players were shocking to absorb and digest to say the least. Their endorsement of Incognito even after the voicemails and text messages found the light of day was stunning. Some have described Incognito as an “honorary Black man”. Mike Wallace, Mike Pouncey, Brent Grimes and Michael Egnew have all been publically defending the deplorable actions of Incognito. They all seem to identify with Incognito instead of Martin who graduated from Stanford and his parents who are graduates of Harvard. A puzzling question emerges out this faulty constructed reality. Why does authentic Blackness have to be synonymous with anti- intellectualism, lowliness, violence, and poverty? On NFL Today, CBS analyst and Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe gave a passionate commentary on the racial component of this fiasco. He says,

“I’m 45; I grew up in rural South Georgia. Just ask your parents, ask your grandparents. The mountain that they climbed so a black person in America can have respect can have dignity. And you allow this, in an open locker room to take place, is unacceptable. I’m so disappointed. I just hope that someone was misquoted. I hope I’m wrong and they didn’t allow Incognito to say this racially charged word in a locker room and go unchecked. I’m embarrassed. If he said that to Jonathan Martin, he didn’t only say it to him; he’s talking to you too. Because if you’re black, you know what that word means.”

Noted Emilie Townes once said, “Never accept what is as the only is that can be”. Jonathan Martin decided to transform his “is” in exchange for another. In a patriarchal society where one’s manhood and masculinity is registered by how much violence one can consume whether it is physiological or psychological, the NFL will remain the ideal space where violence is manifested. Writer David Zurin tags this phenomenon “toxic masculinity.” Toxic masculinity is seed sown in Pop Warner football and it bears fruit in scholastic, collegiate, and professional football. In a culture where men are taught: never to cry, to be vulnerable, or to convey anything that resembles sensitivity; Jonathan Martin was more heroic by exposing the system instead acquiescing and becoming a product of that system. Jonathan Martin should be championed as a hero in the sports realm where masculinity is monolithic and where difference can castigate some else as deficient. Though he did not stand up to the physical bully, with his actions he may have exposed the machine that creates, cultivates, and then celebrates the kind of person Richie Incognito is. I salute you Jonathan Martin.


Rev. Rashad D.Grove is the Senior Pastor of The First Baptist Church of Wayne in Wayne, PA, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He's a graduate of Genvea College and is currently a graduate student at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Empire State College studying African-American studies. You can visit the church at www.fbcwayne.org and you can follow him @thegroveness.

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