Thu08282014

More than a game: No Shoes, Please

There is a lot about the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito situation that intrigues me. As I write, the full details regarding Martin’s allegations about his tenure as an offensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins have yet to be disclosed. However, by abruptly leaving his team and filing a formal complaint, Martin has been criticized by his former teammates and other NFL players for not standing up for himself and airing locker room dirty laundry in public.

Support for Martin has surfaced, too. People have questioned hazing rituals that really amount to nothing more than sanctioned extortion and abuse, in addition to criticizing Incognito’s use of the N-word in a text message to Martin.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that African-American players on the team found nothing offensive about Incognito’s message. It seems that Americans in general have been spoon-fed enough rap music that the N-word is OK in certain locales (locker rooms) with certain people (Caucasians like Incognito who are conferred “honorary” black status) and under certain conditions (when demeaning language is used to “toughen” someone up or even convey warmth and camaraderie).

However, I was shocked to hear reports that Martin – a Stanford University graduate with Harvard-educated parents – was considered “less black” than Incognito, whose thuggish behavior has been documented since his college career. It reminds me of complaints I’ve heard from African-Americans who say that their own community will accuse them of acting “too white” if they are educated and/or well spoken. Whether or not those misaligned values played a role with the players who lined up to defend Incognito’s behavior is unproven, but something smells weird to me.

The NFL investigation into the Miami Dolphins workplace environment will take some time because it’s not only a complicated situation, it’s also a chaotic hot mess. But I’m fascinated by several arguments already being made in the court of public opinion.

First, there’s the one regarding Martin’s manhood. When that particular assessment is at play, I can almost predict that the definition of said manhood is going to be extremely narrow, rigid and backward thinking, rather than broad, open and current. I wonder how long men will continue putting themselves through that lifetime gauntlet.

Second, there’s the argument that things are routinely said and done in any garden-variety locker room that are unacceptable in other workplaces. That’s called exceptionalism: Organization A is exempt from a normal code of conduct for X and Y reasons. OK, but explain how X and Y serve the common or team good, thereby qualifying Organization A for special dispensation – and “It’s always been that way” doesn’t count as a good reason.

Finally, there’s the admonishment that Martin should have kept things in-house regardless. A situation may merit attention and scrutiny, but it must be done out of public view. I’ve heard that old chestnut invoked under circumstances ranging from safeguarding personal privacy to covering up crimes like child molestation. So unless the Miami Dolphins locker room is a matter of national security, I think transparency regarding organizational practices is a good thing.

I can understand why players might be afraid of a little light, but I’d be more concerned about remaining in the shadows.

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