Muscle and meanness: Incognito hazing comes down to 'What’s a real man?'

Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Richie Incognito is indefinitely suspended for sending racist and threatening messages to teammate Jonathan Martin, prompting a debate about masculinity.

Lynne Sladky/AP
Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito (68) and tackle Jonathan Martin (71) stand on the field during an NFL football practice in Davie, Fla. Incognito has been suspended for sending racist and threatening messages to teammate Martin.

What Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Richie Incognito did to fellow offensive lineman Jonathan Martin – use a racial slur, disparage his mother – quickly made him either the most hated hazer in sports or the epitome of a dying breed, the unapologetic man’s man.

In the days since Martin left the Dolphins’ training complex in disgust over what he said was continuous and over-the-top hazing by Incognito and others, America has found itself in a debate over the definition of modern manhood, pitting the primacy of old warrior codes against evolving social expectations around bullying and cruel joshing.

As the NFL probes the Dolphins’ locker room culture and, more broadly, the league’s views on hazing, the incident has reverberated across the country, at a time when basketball, European soccer, and now American football have become embroiled in controversies around cultural, racial, and gender sensitivities.

“There will be some who say [the uproar over Incognito’s actions] is overpolicing of normal rambunctious masculinity, and some percentage, probably a majority, who’ll say, ‘Oh, [hazing] is perfectly OK, but this guy goes too far,’ and a third that’ll say this story blows the lid off a culture of cruelty that has no place in what is, let’s be honest, the entertainment industry,” says Michael Kimmel, the author of “Angry White Men” and a sociologist at Stony Brook University in New York.

“At the same time,” he says, “there’s this constant feeling that we’re making men softer, the feminization of sport – ‘When men were men, we didn’t care about such things as teeth.’ ”

According to transcripts of voicemails provided by Martin’s agent, Incognito last April called Martin by a racist phrase and ended his rant with, “… you’re a rookie. I’ll kill you.” Incognito is suspended indefinitely from the team, and it’s unclear whether either player will ever block a quarterback’s blindside again.

Martin’s agent says verbal and physical abuse continued for 18 months until Martin walked away from the team last week and sought psychological help.

Many Americans called Martin a hero for calling out the NFL over Incognito’s behavior and, Martin’s agent says, the conduct of some other players. In Martin’s view, experts say, team-building initiation traditions had morphed into team-breaking abuse, meaning that he could no longer trust his own teammates to stand up for him on the gridiron.

“[E]specially in the NFL, being a man – a man's man, a real man, a manly man – all too often means projecting an air of invincibility, a willingness to absorb pain at all costs, an expectation that even the most vicious insults can do no harm,” writes espnW’s Kate Fagan. “Vulnerability is seen as weakness.”

She adds that until America has a real debate about the nature of manhood in the wake of the scandal, “too few people will see and appreciate the real men in our midst, the ones who refuse to perpetuate this toxic brand of masculinity.”

But many have rushed to Incognito’s defense, blaming Martin for failing to resolve the matter inside the locker room, and for not just punching back twice as hard at Incognito to assert dominance.

“If Incognito did offend him racially, that's something you have to handle as a man!” one anonymous NFL-er told Sport Illustrated’s Jim Martin.

In the same vein, the push to root out hazing in the NFL comes up against a broader complaint about what some have called the “wussification” of American society, to the point where, according to books like Helen Smith’s “Men on Strike,” men are increasingly boycotting college and relationships because America has become “anti-male.”

Brian Phillips in the online magazine Grantland takes a different view, writing that football has become “the major theater of American masculine crackup.”

He adds: “It's as if we're a nation of gentle accountants and customer-service reps who've retained this one venue where we can air-guitar the berserk discourse of a warrior race. We're Klingons, but only on Sundays.”

Others still see complexities in what, on the surface, appears to be an obvious act of a team leader going way too far in bullying a rookie. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill added nuance to the story on Wednesday when he said Incognito saw Martin as a “little brother” whom he looked out for.

“We’re all kind of jumping to conclusions and I’m guilty of doing the same thing,” former New York Jets QB Boomer Esiason said on his WFAN radio show on Thursday.

“Nobody is approving of being a bully, nobody is saying that’s OK, nobody is saying the language in which Richie Incognito was talking to Jonathan Martin is OK,” he said. “But again, I have to understand the context in which those conversations took place and the conversations between the two men for the past 18 months.”

Either way, the Incognito incident now looms as a major turning point for the NFL and its locker room culture.

“An event like this is definitely going to change the organizational policies of the NFL,” says Jonathan Casper, a sports management expert at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

The upshot of Martin’s decision to step outside the team to complain about his treatment may turn into a “morning after” moment, where Americans will one day look back and be shocked that such behavior was ever tolerated, or that some men were so bluntly defined as merely muscle and meanness, says Mr. Kimmel at Stony Brook.

Some sports culture experts also suggest that, while Incognito’s behavior may have been particularly cruel, some NFL coaches, players, and executives looked the other way because the big offensive lineman performed on the field and riled up the locker room, even as he racked up a rap sheet of misconduct.

“An outsider might say, well, look at [Incognito’s] track record, he should have been stopped at Ohio State,” says Adam Naylor, a sports psychology professor at Boston University. “But that requires a whole system to not value the pseudo-toughness that he displays.”

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