Miami Dolphins players don’t get it. Their support of suspended guard Richie Incognito – even after they learned he used a racial slur in a threatening voice mail left for linemate Jonathan Martin, who is black, is among many troubling aspects of the bullying controversy that has engulfed the NFL franchise.
But for me, what’s most disturbing is that several misguided African American Dolphins players — Mike Wallace, Mike Pouncey, Brent Grimes and Michael Egnew have been among Incognito’s most vocal defenders — identify more closely with Martin’s alleged tormentor than they do with Martin. Their support for Incognito shows the wrongheaded thinking that can arise from the locker-room culture and long-standing beliefs in the African American community about what behavior is socially acceptable for blacks.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about that caused Martin to abruptly leave the team last week and seek counseling. After Dolphins management became aware of the voice mail, Incognito was suspended and the NFL launched an investigation into the mess.
But this much is clear: Dolphins players view Incognito as one of the guys. From Martin’s position on the outskirts of the locker room, he couldn’t see the inner circle. And being an outsider can make you a target in the unforgiving, alpha-male world of the NFL — especially if you’re African American.
Generally, the league’s black players come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. If not for football scholarships, many never would have attended college. They share a bond that comes from the all-encompassing role the game has played in improving their lives, both financially and in social status. In reaching the NFL, Martin took a road less traveled.
His parents attended Harvard, as did their parents. His father is a college dean and his mother is a corporate attorney. Martin graduated from a small, private high school in Los Angeles. Martin strongly considered attending Harvard, but they don’t play big-time college football in the Ivy League.
He accepted a scholarship to Stanford, developed into an all-American tackle and earned a degree in Ancient Greek and Roman classics. You won’t find many NFL players of any race who spent their college days studying Homer. By all accounts, Martin, soft spoken and inquisitive, would rather read a good book than participate in locker room hijinks.
To African Americans on the Dolphins, Martin was a 6-foot-5, 312-pound oddball because his life experience was radically different from theirs. It’s an old story among African Americans. Too often, instead of celebrating what makes us different and learning from each other, we criticize more educated or affluent African Americans for not “keeping it real.”
Then there’s the scrutiny Martin faced in general within the Dolphins organization. NFL players are expected to fit in. If you don’t run with the pack and prove you’re one of us, the thinking goes, how will I be able to count on you late in the fourth quarter? Conformity is necessary for team unity, coaches say. Martin has lived outside the box his whole life.
Former Stanford standout and NFL player Coy Wire provided an insider’s perspective this week in a column for Fox Sports, writing, “If you don’t fit into the mold, and the culture in the locker room, you won’t last. . . . Sometimes, in a gladiator sport like football, intelligence can be perceived as being soft.”
Incognito has never had to worry about being considered too smart. His history of bullying dates from his time in college at Nebraska. Hall of Famer Warren Sapp alleges Incognito once directed a racial slur at him during a game. To the rest of society, he looks like a hate-spewing bully. On the Dolphins, he was a member of the team’s leadership council.
Incognito comes from a blue-collar background. On the field, he demonstrates toughness and swagger. Black Dolphins players understand Incognito and respect his confident style. It’s the way many of them roll as well, which explains why a former Dolphins player, in an anonymous quote this week to the Miami Herald, said Incognito is considered an “honorary” black man within the team’s locker room. We now have a new entry for the stupidest-quote-in-history award.
Outside of the NFL, no right-thinking African Americans would count someone of another race as one of their own based on his ability to block, and his willingness to terrorize mentally or physically weaker people. It seems the Dolphins could benefit from a refresher on how hard civil rights leaders of the 1950s and ’60s worked to make it socially unacceptable to say the racial slur Incognito is alleged to have used at least twice.
In the African American community, we know there’s still work to do. The fact that several black Dolphins players have chosen to stand with Incognito instead of Martin shows just how much.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.
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