The recent controversy involving Miami Dolphins offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin has prompted both very lowbrow and highbrow commentary from the sports media. The scandal also provoked some pretty unconcealed faux-journalism from major outlets.
What exactly transpired within that NFL locker room or who is to blame we will probably never be able to determine with 100 percent certainty. Ultimately, second-year Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin left the team after fellow offensive lineman Richie Incognito – an individual with a history not lacking of personal issues and controversy – allegedly took orders to “toughen up” the Stanford grad Martin too far, including using racial slurs and forcing Martin to pay $15,000 for a trip to Las Vegas he even didn’t go on.
However, something constructive we have taken away for sure from the whole mess has been larger discussions regarding what is appropriate locker room culture within professional sports. Even if it has been riddled by individuals (many former and current football players) defending and mitigating the bullying tactics that Martin endured.
One particularly contextualized and articulate take came unexpectedly from a member of another NFL locker room. Not to generalize, but in a league that is primarily defined by machismo and is synonymous with phrases like “shake it off” and “man up,” the following from Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall strays from the usual uncompromising narrative within football culture:
“Take a little boy and a little girl. A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is ‘Get up, shake it off. You’ll be OK. Don’t cry.’ When a little girl falls down, what do we say? ‘It’s going to be OK.’ We validate their feelings. So right there from that moment, we’re teaching our men to mask their feelings, don’t show their emotions. And it’s that times 100 with football players. You can’t show that you’re hurt, you can’t show any pain. So for a guy to come into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, that’s a problem. That’s what I mean by the culture of the NFL. And that’s what we have to change.”
That from a professional football player. Marshall himself has had his own struggles with off-field personal issues, including mental illness. For an individual athlete in the No Feelings League to come out and express those thoughts takes a different type of strength and courage. Standing up for the legitimization of the emotions of 300-pound linemen who are dehumanized to a degree by a public that only sees them in helmets and uniforms for 60 minutes every week is an understatedly important act. The sentiments carry even more weight when they also come from inside the locker room, rather than a writer’s couch.
Whether or not Incognito was completely in the wrong or the actual events have been distorted or inflated, the culture of professional sports and the emotional treatment of athletes – by their teammates and coaches – is a serious issue that demands examination. Or as Marshall puts it:
“Because the longer it goes untreated, the worse it gets.”
This article was written by Nikolas DeCosta-Klipa . Email him at ndecost1[at]ithaca.edu