Sports Don’t Have to be Dumb


Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has his hands full with the Incognito scandal. (Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

Here’s the thing that troubles me about the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin mess.

It’s not that Incognito bullied Martin and forced him to seek psychiatric help, as awful as that is.

It’s not that this seems to be a common problem in the NFL, because it seems like things will change now.

It’s the way both the incident itself and the reaction to it are indicative of the anti-intellectual culture of the NFL and the American sporting scene at large.

For those who need a refresher, Martin left the Miami Dolphins in late October as a result of repeated abuses he suffered from Incognito, including a voicemail he left for Martin in which he called Martin a racial slur.

One thing that has become clear is that Jonathan Martin’s abuse stems from a perception in the Miami locker room that Martin wasn’t tough. He’s the Stanford-educated son of two Harvard-educated lawyers. He’s quiet. He’s not a meathead.

His teammates marginalized him for it.

Richie Incognito, by all accounts, is a jerk. In college at Nebraska, he was in a fight at a party and was charged with three counts of misdemeanor assault. He later left the team after getting in a fight in the locker room. In 2009, he was cut by the St. Louis Rams after getting in a shouting match with his head coach on the sidelines. He is also accused of sexually harassing a woman at a golf outing in 2012.

His Dolphins teammates viewed him as leader.

In the NFL, unless their intelligence manifests itself in a masterful understanding of offensive and defensive schemes — really, unless they’re a quarterback — smart players are ostracized. Hot-headed dolts like Richie Incognito are lauded for their “passion” — the coaching euphemism for unchecked anger.

It’s not just Jonathan Martin. Consider Myron Rolle, the Rhodes Scholar who was an All-American safety at Florida State. He saw his draft stock drop because teams were concerned he had interests outside of football. He’s currently enrolled in medical school, pursuing a career as a neurosurgeon.

It’s astonishing that, in a game as complex as football, a thoughtful player like Martin wasn’t valued as much a racist misogynist like Incognito. Numerous Dolphins players, such as Mike Pouncey and Mike Wallace, have come out in support of Incognito, despite the mounting evidence against him.

The majority of the media reaction has been sympathetic toward Martin. There has been plenty of well-written analysis of the complex locker room culture of the NFL — Robert Klemko’s piece on Sports Illustrated’s MMQB comes to mind.

But, plenty of people have said plenty of stupid things including, of course, ESPN’s Skip Bayless. I’ve learned by now to ignore Bayless, but he really outdid himself here.

“More I hear, the less I can condemn Incognito,” Bayless said on Twitter. “Still abhor voice mail but sounds like even black Dolphins not that upset by it. Shocking.”

Bayless — as his colleague Rick Reilly has argued with regard to the Redskins’ nickname — would like you to believe that the use of a racial slur is OK if it’s sanctioned by a small group of people.

Bayless even went as far as to rationalize Incognito’s actions, tweeting, “If in fact Philbin encouraged Incognito to light a fire under JMartin, guess it’s possible Incognito reached for deepest hot-button insults.”

Maybe our athletes would be smarter if the people we pay to talk about them were.


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