Eye on the News

Harry Stein
Bullies and Their Pulpit
Sports media rush to judgment in the Richie Incognito matter.
11 November 2013

The troubling case of Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito, suspended indefinitely for allegedly bullying teammate Jonathan Martin so viciously that Martin walked away from the team, is just more evidence that the sports pages are no longer a refuge from real-world problems. It’s also a reminder of something else: the alacrity with which so many in the sports media rush to judgment when the story involves, and can be cast as advancing, the progressive take on hot-button social and cultural issues. Increasingly, coverage of sports-related issues—from the admission of women to Augusta National and the notorious Duke rape case to the current controversy over the Washington Redskins’ name—is as ideologically tinged as editorial-page commentary.

In this regard, the Incognito-Martin story was a twofer. As soon as the story broke, the white Incognito was everywhere presumed guilty not just of bullying the bi-racial Martin (or, alternately, in some outlets, of “workplace harassment”) but of the crudest kind of racism. The evidence: A voicemail left by Incognito for Martin that began “Hey, wassup, you half n----- piece of s---” and was otherwise replete with vulgarity. The media outrage was uncompromising and absolute. At the forefront was ESPN, The Worldwide Leader in Sports. “I think Richie Incognito is a racist, I think he’s bigoted, I think he’s a bully and it’s all wrapped in one package,” raged commentator Tom Jackson on SportsCenter Monday Kickoff, and the sentiment was adamantly seconded not only by his fellow black NFL veterans on the panel, Keyshawn Johnson and Cris Carter, but even by Mike Ditka. “You can’t let ’em bully,” said the legendary hard-ass ex-coach, toeing the party line with all the conviction he could muster, “or they’ll keep doin’ it.” Within a day, Incognito was, as the Miami Herald put it, “a national villain,” and it was taken for granted that he would never play another down in the NFL.

It was only once the media narrative was established that it began to emerge that, just perhaps, there was more to the story than just bottomless malice and irredeemable racism. Indeed, the part that had gone untold was more complex and revealing. In brief, while the attitudes and values that prevail in a pro football locker room are unquestionably different from those of a faculty lounge or elite newsroom, they’ve generally served those who embrace them pretty well.

In fact, once they were permitted to break their silence, those who knew the principals best—their Dolphins teammates—pronounced themselves baffled and incensed by the allegations. Far from antagonists, they insisted, Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin were good friends. Observed the team’s quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, “If you asked Jonathan Martin who his best friend is on this team two weeks ago, he’d say Richie Incognito.” Of the damning voicemail, wide receiver Brian Hartline noted that “If I’m not mistaken this is the same guy (Martin) that was laughing about this voicemail at one point in time.” Added tackle Tyson Clabo, “What’s perceived is that Richie is this psychopath racist, and the reality is Richie was a pretty good teammate.” A number of their black teammates echoed this view, including center Mike Pouncey and wide receiver Mike Wallace, who added that they “love” and “respect” Incognito and want him back with the team. “He’s a good guy,” said defensive tackle Randy Starks, “I never had a problem with him.” Another black player, unnamed, told a reporter that, far from racist, Incognito was regarded in the locker room as “an honorary black.” Pointedly, no one on the team publicly defended Martin, who was reportedly home in California undergoing treatment for emotional issues and had hired a lawyer. “I don’t know why he is doing this,” said Clabo, of the charges leveled against Incognito. “And the only person who knows why is Jonathan Martin.”

A second-year pro out of Stanford, talented but regarded as having so far failed to live up to expectations, Martin was clearly something of an anomaly in the towel-snapping, overgrown boys’ club that is pro football. Studious, self-contained, and sweet-natured, from a privileged background, he failed to mesh with his teammates off the field, which could carry over to Sunday afternoons. Some reports suggest that the alleged bullying may have been instigated by Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin to toughen up the sensitive Martin and foster team cohesion. If the NFL’s current investigation proves as much, Incognito’s will not be the only head to roll.

In any case, Incognito was the obvious candidate for the job. Even by league standards, he’s long had a reputation as a rough and unruly character, with a history of line-crossing behavior going back to a misdemeanor assault conviction during his playing days at Nebraska. He’s bounced from team to team, often getting involved in and instigating fights. Tone and content-wise, the casual coarseness of his now-infamous voicemail seemed par for the course. As ready-made media villains go, Incognito was so made to order that he may as well have come twirling a black moustache.

Still, in recent years, he’d apparently been trying to change his behavior and his image, and with his teammates at least, he had succeeded. It is Martin whom they regard with disdain for violating the code by which NFL players scrupulously abide: to work these things out among themselves, even if that sometimes means resolving a dispute the old-fashioned way, mano a mano. There is no whining in football.

But for many in the press, such an ethic was itself now cause for anguished reflection. IN BULLYING CASE, QUESTIONS ON N.F.L. CULTURE, ran the inevitable New York Times headline, the paper of record seizing on the story to examine football’s traditional rookie-hazing rituals and otherwise lament the brutality and inhumanity of one of the few remaining bastions of unrestrained American machismo. In the touchy-feely sweepstakes, no outlet topped USA Today, which in a piece on Incognito’s long, sad career as a bully sought to establish, Dr. Phil-like, that Martin’s alleged tormentor was also a victim. “In previous interviews with reporters, Incognito and his father indicated other students ridiculed him for being overweight as a child,” it read, “especially during sixth grade in Glendale, Ariz. His father, Richie Sr., a Vietnam veteran, told NFL.com that he gave his son advice: ‘If you let anyone give you (expletive) now, you’re going to take (expletive) your entire life.’” Shana Alexander, a California-based sports psychologist, weighed in, too. “When somebody is bullied or there’s any type of abuse in their life, we see the cycle of abuse repeated in many different ways. They act out sometimes all the way through their lives. Unless that person can recognize they have issues and want to change that pattern, it tends to want to repeat itself.”

It was nearly a week into the story before Incognito broke his self-imposed silence, sitting down with Fox Sports. Surprisingly poised and well-spoken—by now, one almost expected a sub-literate fit only for a padded cell—it was clear that he’d been listening closely to the public conversation. He repeatedly spoke of “the culture of our locker room” and “the culture around football.” But he was insistent that the racism charge was a smear and that, while he can sometimes go overboard, there was no bullying. To the contrary, whatever might have happened between him and his “brother” Martin was in the nature of their normal give and take; in fact, he said, Martin had written vile stuff to him also, and it was equally meaningless. “All this stuff coming out, it speaks to the culture of our locker room, it speaks to the culture of our closeness, it speaks to the culture of our brotherhood.” He went on: “And the racism, the bad words, that’s what I regret most, but that’s a product of the environment and that’s what we use all the time.”

There have been, thankfully, at least a handful of exceptions to the prevailing narrative. The New York Post’s Phil Mushnick, long resistant to the group-think of the sports media fraternity, took aim at ESPN’s moral posturing, pointing out that Ray Lewis, another of the network’s analysts quick to condemn Incognito, was himself famously implicated in a still-unsolved double murder “and eventually paid off the families of the victims.” But, hey, “Nobody’s perfect.” He might have added that Disney/ABC-owned ESPN itself long had a reputation as a frat house. “If I had a dollar for every time I was sexually harassed at ESPN, I would be a millionaire,” reports one female employee. Or that the network’s obvious drift leftward, (including hiring Keith Olbermann as one of its most prominent faces) is surely an affront to many viewers; according to a February Gallup poll, in the ESPN audience, conservatives outnumber liberals almost two to one. “I’m not asking . . . that you start airing Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh daily on ESPN,” Justin Danhof of the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research told company president Bob Iger at a recent stockholder’s meeting. “I’m just asking you to start playing it straight with the American people. Stop the bias and return to an era of honesty and objectivity in the news.”

RealClearSports editor Samuel Chi also broke ranks with the media hand-wringing. “Nothing else needs to be known,” he wrote scathingly of his colleagues’ reflexive take on the story. “Richie Incognito allegedly used a racial slur, and therefore he must be the worst guy in the history of sports and be banished forever.” Addressing his peers directly, he adds: “It’s extremely naïve to try to impose your own work environment sensitivities on an NFL locker room. . . . After all, you’re not asked to go around assaulting (or be assaulted) by other cubical workers every Sunday, but that’s exactly what they do.” But Chi saved the best for his parting shot. Those so ready to deny Incognito a fair hearing, he writes, are “the same media that at least wanted to hear from murderous thugs like Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad.”

Arguably the only ones more bitter about the role of the press in this sad story are Incognito’s teammates. “Now we’re able to say our opinion and protect ourselves from being bullied by you guys,” said wideout Hartline, when the players at last broke the silence imposed by management. “We weren’t fighting back. We never said a word. We had to sit back and listen for a couple of days. We’re kind of tired of it.”

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