The NFL and the “N-word”: You’re Doing It Wrong
Part 2 – Words, Professionalism, Back Home
DISCLAIMER: The intent of this article is not to definitively state who is right or wrong when it comes to the use of the “n-word” in today’s society. Instead, I hope to generate discussion and maybe offer a different way of thinking about this issue by identifying problems at our core as a society, as sports enthusiasts, and the way we view professions in general.
Words and the Martin-Incognito Case
Quick brainstorming activity:
Name as many words, phrases, racial slurs, homophobic references, as you can that are unacceptable to say at your job. It will probably take you a good 60 seconds to reach about 25.
Side Note (to add a little comic relief here): I love Family Feud, especially with Steve Harvey. I can picture him now: “Name something that you can’t say at work” and some middle-aged white dude awkwardly looks at him like, “I don’t know if I should say this…”
I think as a biracial child who works in a very ethnically diverse military I get a unique glimpse into all kinds of cultures. For an NFL organization that prides itself on encouraging and embracing multiple cultures, races, and ethnicities, what could be more offensive to a non-black than instituting a rule that only encourages respecting black culture through the regulation of vocabulary? There’s been almost no discussion about the pervasive use of gay slurs to insult other players. What about Latinos? What about our foreign-born players?
For the record, I think Jonathan Martin is guilty of a lot more than people want to admit. To be honest, I think Martin is a soft guy (and he admitted that to himself and his family). I think some of the texts he sent Incognito were over the line. But if when you read the Wells’ Report you see that Incognito was clearly playing with house money when it came to the whole, “oh we’re friends and we rip on each other – that’s just what bro’s do!” argument that seems to be permeating the internet for Incognito apologists.
In the Incognito-Martin case, we like to focus on how terrible it is that Richie Incognito repeatedly called Jonathan Martin the n-word. But too often we say, “that’s such a terrible thing to say,” and we stop the discussion there. The NFL and those who talk about the issue are missing the point. The question is, “Why did Richie Incognito call Martin the n-word?” and the reasons are many.
Let me be very clear: Incognito was not a bully. He was a serial bully. The Wells’ Report (and just the news in general) paint a picture of a desperately insecure huge man who thrived on putting others down to make himself feel better. I cannot be more unapologetically clear about my feelings on this: Incognito = mentally unstable serial bully. Dude beat up his own car, checked himself into a mental hospital. Before sending me the hate texts and the Facebook comments, read the report.
Despite what he claims, Incognito is a blatant racist obsessed with asserting his dominance through putting others down based on their race, perceived sexual orientation, gender, and/or physical harassment and violence. There’s no other way to cut it. I’m not going to censor the following Incognito quotes from the investigation because I think we should all feel the power of these words (all of this straight from the report conducted by independent investigator Ted Wells):
The voicemail Incognito left Martin:
“Hey, wassup, you half-nigger piece of shit. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. I’ll shit in your fuckin’ mouth. I’m gonna slap your fuckin’ mouth, I’m gonna slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. Fuck you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”
A friendly team dinner:
At the dinner, Martin claimed, Incognito made additional offensive racial comments to him (although he said he laughed them off at the time). The comments, Martin said, included jokes about slavery, and he claimed that Incognito called him a “nigger” to his face at the restaurant. Incognito also insulted Martin in person and in text messages with other racially charged language, including referring to Martin as a “liberal mulatto bitch,” “stinky Pakistani,” “shine box” and “darkness.”
Sexual Harassment at a charity golf tournament:
In May 2012, Incognito engaged in two incidents of inappropriate behavior at a Dolphins’ charity golf tournament within the span of less than 24 hours. He has admitted that both incidents were fueled by alcohol. In the first, he and several other players commandeered a guest’s car for joy-riding in the parking lot of the golf club and allegedly damaged the guest’s luggage. The next day, Incognito allegedly molested a female volunteer at the tournament. He was accused of using a golf club to touch her genitals, touching her inappropriately with his body, squirting water on her and other inappropriate conduct, and she filed a report with the police. Incognito was not charged with a crime, but he entered into a confidential civil settlement to resolve the matter; news reports claim that he made a payment of $30,000
Homophobic taunting of an unidentified teammate:
Martin and other witnesses informed us that Player A was repeatedly called a “faggot” and subjected to other homophobic invective. Incognito stated that Player A, although not actually believed to be gay, was subject to these taunts repeatedly and persistently—he got it “every day from everybody, high frequency.” … Martin said that on one occasion, Pouncey physically restrained Player A and, in full view of other players, jokingly told Jerry to “come get some pussy,” and that Jerry responded by touching Player A’s buttocks in a way that simulated anal penetration.
The O-line coach gets in on the fun:
The evidence shows that [Offensive Line Coach Jim Turner] overheard and participated in this behavior toward Player A. During the 2012 Christmas season, Coach Turner gave all of the offensive linemen gift bags that included a variety of stocking stuffers. In each gift bag except for Player A’s, Turner included a female “blow-up” doll; Player A’s bag included a male doll.
Taunting an Asian-American team trainer:
Incognito, Jerry and Pouncey admitted that they directed racially derogatory words toward him, including “Jap” and “Chinaman.” At times, according to Martin, they referred to the Assistant Trainer as a “dirty communist” or a “North Korean,” made demands such as “give me some water you fucking chink,” spoke to him in a phony, mocking Asian accent, including asking for “rubby rubby sucky sucky,” and called his mother a “rub and tug masseuse.”
Incognito also kept a written record of several of these events and assigned dollar values to them in a “fine book,” which he attempted to destroy when the Incognito-Martin case broke to the public. The money accrued through the fine book was supposed to pay for a vacation for teammates at the end of the year. According to the book, Martin was fined numerous times for being a “pussy.”
** I chose not to include the sexually explicit comments about Martin’s sister because in my opinion they’re the worst part of the whole investigation. Honestly, they’re so bad I don’t really want to read them again or post them here. If you’re interested you can read it all here: http://deadspin.com/the-worst-stuff-from-the-dolphins-investigation-updati-1522846626
The point is, if you ban the n-word the real brutes like Incognito will always find a way to insult and demean. Short of publishing an exhaustive list of offensive words referees should memorize and penalize players for, declaring that one or two words are too bad to be spoken on a football field stops entirely too short of addressing the issue at hand.
The Incgonito-Martin case is simply a microcosm of the macro background of the n-word. People of one race deemed superior, expressing their dominance over a slave culture through the use of words. While I think the lion’s share of blame for this situation lies with Incognito, those around who heard and did nothing – to include Jonathan Martin himself – are also to blame for failing to stand up and speak out against this stuff. The elimination of a word in a culture of freedom of speech takes a step in the wrong direction in the broader discussion of how racism still permeates in sports and our society as a whole.
“In the NFL, you can be a wife-beater, you can do drugs, get piss-ass drunk and wreck your car, sleep with as many groupies as you want behind your wife’s back, and destroy private property whenever you went on a rampage. No matter what sin you committed, the team would accept you back into the fold. If anything, the team would hold you in higher esteem! You earned your bones if you were arrested for assault. You put a notch in your belt each time you smoked opium after stomping the Philadelphia Eagles for the incompetents they were. Sometimes, I wondered where the boundaries lay, if any truly existed at all. A man who played professional football could get away with pretty much anything, but never — under any circumstances whatsoever — could you announce that you were gay. That was the one unpardonable sin, the big taboo, the league secret. All those other antics were nothing but entertainment compared to that.”
– An excerpt from Roy Simmons’ Out of Bounds: Coming Out of Sexual Abuse, Addiction, and My Life of Lies in the NFL Closet
I applaud the Fritz-Pollard Alliance for this: The debate over the n-word has now given us an opportunity to generate an intelligent discussion about behavior that we deem to be inappropriate in the workplace. I am not naive enough to believe that a macho-infused football locker room should and could be run the same way we manage cubicles in Corporate America. However, this debate paired with the Wells Report should spur us towards a conversation about football, basketball, baseball or any other sport as a profession.
The criteria by which we deem people “professional athletes” is based solely on the fact that they earn money to play a sport. With that definition, the idea of professionalism is completely lost and yet we’re left wondering why guys making millions on the field act like college kids instead of CEO’s. Attacking the issue of language and how it affects sports should begin with defining what we expect from professional athletes as professionals.
Charles Barkley is infamous for declaring that he didn’t want to be a role model in the 1980’s. I am not saying I think pros have to behave in a way that we want our kids to emulate. It’s our job to decide who/what we want our kids to emulate. However, establishing basic, fundamental behavioral norms for those we deem to be professionals must be more apparent. We have seen some attempts at this from commissioners like David Stern (establishing a rule requiring players to travel to games in professional attire) and Roger Goodell (particularly his crack-down on legal infractions by his players). But ultimately, we still fall short.
The NFL Rookie Symposium is a terrific opportunity to start implementing these potential new standards. Tell a rookie, “Hey, you’re in the NFL now. You’re a professional. X,Y,Z is acceptable behavior in our workplace, A,B,C is not.” Every business does it. There are things I can’t say or talk about in my office that I can say or talk about at home. No one is trying to regulate who players are as people. Instead, we regulate how they display themselves to the general public. It’s not a regulation on their freedom to express themselves, it’s an employer telling their employees that if they want to earn millions of dollars working for them, then they must comply with certain standards of behavior. It works in Corporate America, it works at your office, and it works in the military. The notion that professional athletes have somehow earned some right to be exempt from that is primitive.
The double-standard of acceptable behavior starts at the top. When Jim Boeheim ripped his jacket off and stormed to mid-court to protest a 50/50 blocking call in a Duke-Syracuse game, many talking heads and coaches were quick to rush to his rescue. Why? If CJ Fair (the player who the call was against) did the same thing, he would be derided for the next week as a “child,” a “thug.” We’d talk about how he had to grow up and that his behavior was unacceptable on the court.
The most offensive part of the institution of this rule is that it demonstrates that the NFL is merely paying lip service to something that we as African-Americans (or anyone who cares about diversity and acceptance) want them to actually care about: respect.
If we hope to effect any change in how we display respect for race and diversity it starts at the top, but ultimately ends at the bottom. White owners can try and dictate what they deem to be respectable professional behavior for their athletes by breaking out Urban Dictionary with a highlighter all day long, but until leadership at the player level stands up for change it is all for naught. The school of thought that says ownership and management has no leg to stand on is alive and well. While I don’t know if I agree with this argument, several people say it’s silly for a white owner to look at minority players and say, “You can’t say this because it’s disrespectful and demeaning. Now go run the 40, go broad jump, go hit that guy.” I think that’s a bit of a stretch as it relates to a culture of brutal slavery, but players who feel that way do exist.
The way you get around that is by having player-leaders stand up themselves for the right things. I have yet to hear the captain of a team stand up and say, “I don’t care what management or the league does or doesn’t do. In our locker room, on our practice field, on our team bus we don’t speak this way, instead we carry ourselves this way and I’ll fine you if you don’t comply.” Instead we have player-leaders like Incognito fining players for being “pussies” under the guise of some twisted form of developing mental toughness and warrior character. It’s backwards. You’re doing it wrong.
When will former players who are now black coaches overhear the n-word, grab a player by the facemask and say “when you’re on my field, you won’t talk that way.” They hold the power because they hold the purse strings. Instead of being afraid that a Wells Report will come out on their team, they’re afraid they might alienate a good player and he’ll bolt if they suspend or cut them. Some care more about the win/loss column than their responsibility for developing an upstanding organization. You’re doing it wrong.
Players are quick to lobby for the use of marijuana in the NFL but slow to speak up for guys being bullied over their perceived sexual orientation like “Player A” in the Wells’ report. You don’t even have to agree with their lifestyle to stand up for their right to be respected. You’re doing it wrong.
Guys like my dad who grew up in the ghetto turned out OK because they had loving parents who dictated an acceptable level of decency at home. Understandably, everyone has their interpretation of what that entails. The NFL can’t control when a player was born, where he was born, how he was raised, but they can begin defining what acceptable behavior looks like and establishing a standard of professionalism.
Real change can’t happen until players and coaches take the following attitude:
You grew up saying the n-word? Fine. Cool. I get it. I’ve got friends like that. I went through that phase myself even. I’m not gonna fine you for saying it, and I’ll damn sure fight for your right not to penalized for it. But you’re in the NFL now. Grow up. Speak with distinction. Be a professional. Represent our team with pride and carry yourself like a professional adult.
You can’t honestly have an organization that prides itself on team with no code of ethics, no standard for behavior and wonder why every year without fail we find out about an alleged serial rapist Darren Sharper, or a dog-killing Michael Vick, or a Stallworth, or a Brent, or a Roethlisberger, or an Incognito, or a Hernandez. Please stop acting surprised. Ultimately at the end of the day, you – the fan – care about the bottom line and so do your coaches, the GM’s, the presidents of operation, the ownership, and the Commissioner himself. You care about wins and losses, they care about dollars and cents. Too few of us care about what football reflects in our society outside of those 60 minutes.
Player-leaders can stand up for the integrity of their organizations by determining what their locker rooms should look like the same way any company has basic HR standards for their employees. We can start with Pop Warner coaches sitting kids on the bench at age 10 for inappropriate behavior before it ends with the Wells’ Report. It’s not about being politically correct. It’s not about not saying the dreaded “n-word.” It is about looking beyond the bottom line and attacking the culture back home – in the locker room. It’s about recognizing that at some point, generations effect change when people stand up and make controversial statements about what acceptable behavior is. That’s how you attack racism at its core, where the “n-word” started.
But if we keep attacking words and ignoring their history, failing to recognize how and why they have power, and failing to educate each other on why words have meaning, you’re missing the point, and you’re doing it wrong.