By Michael Ko
Michael Ko is a high-school English teacher in the Seattle area who previously was a reporter for The Seattle Times, covering crime and sports.
Fans of the Seahawks surely remember the foggy, chilly Sunday night last December, during the team’s stirring end-of-the-season run. Kam Chancellor locked his radar on 49ers tight end Vernon Davis and nearly decapitated him. The feeling at CenturyLink just after that hit was unmistakable. The crowd was frenzied, manic, boiling. In a word: bloodlust.
Given this context, should we really be surprised at what Richie Incognito said to Jonathan Martin?
The NFL is successful for many reasons. Chief among them is the fact that it’s hyper-glorified, commercialized, sanctioned, controlled violence. In what other workplace do the featured employees risk, at any given moment, torn ligaments, snapped bones, ruptured spleens (Jason Witten) or even lost eyesight (Orlando Brown)? Not to mention the still-unknown and probably devastating future conclusions on concussions and brain injuries. And it’s on prime-time television every week!
Professional football is described and hyperbolized with violent verbs and phrases: “bodies littered on the ground,” “plays with an edge,” “manhandled,” “smash mouth,” “pistol formation,” “aerial assault,” “Beast Mode,” etc. It’s a gladiator sport, where persevering through pain is celebrated. How awed was the media – how awed was I – when the bridge of J.J. Watt’s nose exploded during the Seahawks-Texans game earlier this year, and he returned to play, blood streaming down his face? It was on every highlight reel.
Remove the expletives. What did Incognito really say? I’m going to defecate on you, slap you and your mother, then kill you. Overheard at my doctor’s office? Uh, yeah, I’m out of here. But in an NFL locker room, at the bottom of an NFL scrum with some of the most aggressive guys on the planet, guys who are paid millions of dollars to beat up other guys? Seems just about right.
I’d argue that even Incognito’s racial overtones – he began his message by calling Martin the N-word – are part of the game. Locker rooms in the NFL and major-college football seem to me one of the few places where black culture is completely out in the open, where black culture is dominant. About two-thirds of NFL players are black, and almost a third of NFL teams this year are led by a black quarterback.
So, of course, it’s crude and inappropriate that Incognito, who is white, directed the N-word out loud at Martin, who is half-black. But is it really that surprising that a crude and inappropriate guy like Incognito would pick up that word in his travels and use it with a teammate who was also reportedly a friend? Incognito is a hard-scrabble tough guy who’s spent his entire adult life navigating locker rooms, a guy who’s been voted the dirtiest player in the league, a guy who is now clearly supported by his teammates – white and black – for that very quality. To me, it’s not surprising at all.
Only Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito know what really happened between them. And perhaps that truth will eventually come out. What’s worth remembering now is that professional football is a violent, emotional game, played by athletes who are expected to thrive amidst danger, pain, intense emotions, and general craziness. If you want extreme competition and a few hours of bloodlust and gladiator fantasy, look on. But we should know better than to hold up professional football players as role models for societal norms. If you are expecting that, please look elsewhere.
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