The National Football League is hoping it can finally move past the ugliness that’s followed it ever since Jonathan Martin left the Miami Dolphins in October.
Martin, a second-year offensive tackle, left after charging teammate Richie Incognito with bullying, harassment and hazing. Incognito admitted calling Martin the N-word and leaving menacing texts and voicemails on Martin’s phone. The controversy fractured the Dolphins’ locker room. Further complicating matters, the Dolphins were have said to enlisted Incognito, who had previously been voted the league’s dirtiest player, to “toughen up” Martin. Things had gotten so bad for Martin that in May 2013, he considered committing suicide, according to the NFL’s Wells Report.
Martin has been traded to the San Francisco 49ers, where he’ll rejoin his former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, who is now head coach of the 49ers. Harbaugh always supported Martin, and called him a “fine person” and “personal friend.”
One of the immediate legacies of the Martin/Incognito fracas has been that NFL owners are mulling instituting a 15-yard penalty for using the N-word on the field. The league’s competition committee is expected to adopt the rule at the owners’ meeting in Orlando which takes place March 23-26.
As I’ve explained before, the meaning of human language changes with context. That is why you may call your wife honey, but I probably should not. That is why Toby Keith referring to himself as “White Trash With Money” will never be the same as me accusing Toby of being “white trash with money.” That is why Dan Savage proposing a column entitled “Hey Faggot!” will never be the same as me seeing Dan Savage on the street and yelling “Hey Faggot!” This is how humans use language, and it is wholly consistent with how black humans use language. The effort to punish this use, like all respectability politics, is an effort to punish black humanity, is racism.
Former All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp told Dan Patrick that Incognito had called him the N-word during a game, which he recognized as Incognito needling him in hopes of drawing a penalty.
“Come on, in a football game?” Sapp said. “He only wants to get me kicked out. He don’t want to fight. Because the only thing he got to do is call me after the football game, just come over to the locker room and say it after the game. Now we’ve got a real situation.”
In related news, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Washington Redskins general manager Bruce Allen met secretly with Sen. Maria Cantwell and Native American leaders about changing the team’s name, Think Progress reported today. The league has been criticized for dragging its feet when faced with furor over the name, which is widely considered a slur. Several news outlets, including the San Francisco Chronicle, have stopped using it.
No word yet on where Incognito will go, but Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said neither Incognito nor Martin would be returning to Miami in 2014.
Here’s what we know for sure: Martin, who has previously wrestled with depression and considered committing suicide, will have a support system and champion in Harbaugh. He’ll be playing in a city that feels like home for a team that’s expected to make the playoffs. The 49ers, who lost to the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks in a tensely-fought NFC Championship game, will almost certainly do better than the Dolphins’ 2013 regular season record of 8-8. Martin wants to play football, though he doesn’t have to – he intends to go to Harvard Law School when he finishes his NFL career – and he’ll be able to do it.
Opportunities are few in the NFL… Can’t wait to get to work #9erEmpire
— Jonathan A. Martin (@J_Martin71) March 12, 2014