Tuesday, November 05, 2013

When locker-room culture curdles

Some anonymous NFL staffers apparently believe the worst part of the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin row is that other people heard about it. Sports Illustrated's Jim Trotter sums it up nicely:

The Dolphins have indefinitely suspended Incognito for conduct detrimental to the team because his actions, if true, are morally abominable and potential violations of workplace laws. Still, there are NFL personnel people and active and former players who believe Martin handled the situation poorly by allowing it to spill out of the locker room and into the public.

That's not to say they're defending Incognito. They're not in any way, shape or form. But they do believe there is an unwritten rule that player business should be handled in the locker room by the players themselves, particularly when the actions are as vile as those attributed to Incognito.

No stance could better confirm my belief that Martin did the right thing than this. Officials tend to want things kept private for one of two reasons, and one involves national security. The other involves insecurity. Exposure is worse than the crime itself only in the eyes of those who look bad as a result. 

You don't have to be a football player to figure that a locker room is not generally a fount of enlightenment. In my experience, it's every bit as grab-ass, testosterone-fueled and not the place for sensitivity stands as most would guess. I endured my fair share of locker-room teasing and bravado in high school, being as I was a small, first-year senior player with questionable skills and a reputation for being overly brainy. Did I ever rat out the guys to the coach? No. I handled anything thrown my way with wit, by standing up for myself and by dishing it out to those who shot first. Because it never went beyond simple ribbing (anyway, all of the players mostly had my back). But if it had gotten out of hand, and I felt the tide turning against me, I would not have hesitated to take it up the ladder. I felt comfortable with that option because I had a strong and friendly rapport with my coaches (who I'd worked with prior to playing) and had seen them intervene in the past when necessary. 

However, I can understand why a more macho man would be reticent to rat anyone out — especially in the pros, where jobs and reputations are at stake, and where a rookie is particularly vulnerable.

My guess is that Martin reached a breaking point that was a long time coming. Good for him. Anything that distracts from team cohesion — and the game itself — has no business in the locker room, on the field or online.

One hallmark of an abusive relationship is that the abuser, once caught, blames the victim. They'll claim the real travesty isn't the abuse, but that news of the abuse has broken. As if everything was fine before, but the victim's disclosure is proof that they can't "take it like a man/adult" or whatever equivalent insecure, crotch-strutting bluster applies.

I suspect the keep-it-in-the-locker-room crowd is mainly upset that they have to acknowledge that severe bullying exists in the NFL. And they're even madder that they have to at least pretend to stop it now.

The NFL has in recent years been slammed as the No Fun League. In many ways, it is. But behavior like Incognito's is one form of "fun" that anyone who values human decency should be all for abolishing.

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