November 12th, 2013

NFL Bullying Case Sparks Debate Over Race, Sport and Culture


Bullying and sports made headlines recently when Jonathan Martin, a 24-year-old offensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins left his team after being tormented by veteran teammate Richie Incognito.

Richie Incognito

Richie Incognito, pictured above, was suspended from the NFL for harassing teammate Jonathan Martin. In 2012 Incognito was investigated for harassing a woman on a golf course, but no charges were brought against him.

The  case, which involved racial slurs, struck a nerve with the team and fans who are divided over how to address the macho culture of the National Football League.

Martin accused Incognito and others on the team of harassment, physical violence and constant vulgar comments.  In one instance, Incognito left a voice mail message for Martin using a racial slur and threatening to kill his family.

However, Incognito said his actions came from a “place of love” and that they have been taken out of context.

“I’ve taken stuff too far. I did not intend to hurt him,” Incognito said in an interview on Fox Sports. “What I was going for … I hadn’t seen my buddy. I wanted to shock him. I wanted him to call me back. When the words are put out of context, I understand why a lot of eyebrows are raised. What people don’t know is how Jon and I communicate to one another.”

Martin has not made a public statement since leaving the team.

NFL’s “macho” culture under scrutiny

After the allegations surfaced, the Miami Dolphins suspended Incognito for conduct detrimental to the team. But some players on the team, commenters and others in the NFL defended Incognito, saying his actions were just a part of NFL locker room culture.

USA Today – timeline of events

“What people want to call bullying is something that is never going away from football. This is a game of high testosterone, with men hammering their bodies on a daily basis,” wrote former Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Lydon Murtha in an editorial for Sports Illustrated. “Playing football is a man’s job, and if there’s any weak link, it gets weeded out. It’s the leaders’ job on the team to take care of it.”

“I think Jonathan Martin is a weak person,” one personnel man told Sports Illustrated on the condition of anonymity. “If Incognito did offend him racially, that’s something you have to handle as a man!”

These sentiments, which have been repeated by players, coaches and others, have prompted calls for an NFL change.

“(What’s) going on in Miami goes on in every locker room,” said Brandon Marshall, a wide receiver for the Chicago Bears and former teammate of Incognito who has been open about his own struggle with mental illness. “But it’s time for us to start talking. Maybe have some group sessions where guys sit down and maybe talk about what’s going on off the field or what’s going on in the building and not mask everything. Because the (longer) it goes untreated, the worse it gets.”

Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush supported this call to action, saying, “Obviously the situation that’s going on is unfortunate, and anytime a guy gets pushed to that level of not wanting to play football then something has to be done,” he said. “I think it’s something that we can all learn from.”

Race and class play a complicated role

But the story is a complicated twist of race and class.  Some players excused Incognito’s use of a racial slur, saying it’s not racist, it’s just part of the game.

The Miami Herald newspaper reported that many of Incognito’s black teammates support him, saying he’s not a racist.

Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp told radio host Dan Patrick, “One time [Incognito] kicks me in a game and calls me the N-word… That’s a term of endearment where I’m from.”

“Yeah, but if a white guy calls you that … ” Patrick said.

“Come on, in a football game?” Sapp said. “He only wants to get me kicked out. He don’t want to fight. Because the only thing he got to do is call me after the football game, just come over to the locker room and say it after the game. Now we’ve got a real situation.”

And much of the coverage has pointed out Martin’s background, saying he didn’t fit into the rough locker room culture. He grew up in a well-to-do neighborhood and went to an Ivy League school.  He would have been the first fourth-generation African-American Harvard grad had he not decided to study classics at Stanford instead.

Incognito, who is white, came from a very different background.

“Incognito, on the other hand, he had to transfer schools,” wrote NPR’s Mike Pesca. “He was suspended and dismissed from every school he went to. Got in fights, voted NFL’s dirtiest player. There’s a long laundry list of things that he’s done in terms of getting suspended, getting in trouble with the law.”

Regardless, what seems to have emerged from the media discussion following the incident, is that while Martin’s treatment may not have been unusual, how he reacted to it was.

“For whatever reasons — his upbringing, his temperament, who knows? — Martin realized that he didn’t have to subject himself to the harsh idiosyncrasies of his workplace,” wrote Gene Demby for NPR’s Code Switch. “He could walk away from football at any time and still live a comfortable life. (His high school coach said that Martin was still planning to go to Harvard Law School whenever his NFL career ended.) He had other options, and he exercised them.”

— Compiled by Allison McCartney for NewsHour Extra

For the classroom:

Warm up questions
  1. What do you know about the locker-room culture of football at the high school level? What about the college and professional level?
  2. What kinds of things do people do to others in order to “toughen” them up ? Does it work short term? What about long term? How does someone know when they have gone too far?
  3. Is it ever okay to use racial slurs? What about between people of the same race? What if they are of a different race? What if they are friends?
  4. Can we engage in a conversation about race without offending each other?
Discussion questions
  1. We still have not heard Jonathan Martin’s side of the story, but from what you have read and heard what pieces of the story can you put together? What parts of the story are still fuzzy and why?
  2. As a follow-up, the journalist who interviewed Richie Incognito counted that the two players had over a thousand text messages back and fourth in the past year. Incognito insists that he and Jonathan Martin are friends. What do you think and why? Even if they were friends does that excuse any of their behavior? (Source: Fox News Interview with Richie Incognito by Jay Glazer)
  3. What punishment, if any, do you think Richie Incognito should receive for his actions? Do you think he should be allowed to play football for the Miami Dolphins anymore? Should he be fined? Should the coaches get in trouble for encouraging him?
  4. Did Jonathan Martin do the right thing by leaving his team? Provide support for each side of the argument. What were the risks and benefits?
  5. How do we set the tone for an environment that is free of harassment in the NFL? How about your classroom and school? Who are the important players in making a place safe?
  6. Is it important to be able to talk about race and class? How can we engage in a conversation about race without offending each other? What are the characteristics of a open, fair and safe conversation?

Submit Your Student Voice

NewsHour Extra will not use contact information for any purpose other than our own records. We do not share information with any other organization.

RSS Content

Tooltip of RSS content 3