In a classic episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David ties himself into a knot of racism and white guilt over whether he should fire an African-American handyman who did what he felt was a lousy job installing his television.
Larry never realized that the problem was in fact his own inability to switch on the satellite. His friend Wanda Sykes figured it out in three seconds and said, “You gotta turn the damn satellite on for the TV to work! See the little green light? Just gotta turn it on! Or you can fire the black man. Whatever works for you.”
It boggles the mind that this Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying saga, a story about an n-bomb dropping abuser, a complicit coaching staff and the ways “sausages are made” in the National Football League, has for many commentators come back to “blaming the black man.”
The fault, in this narrative, is not with the toxic nature of the Dolphins locker room or a coaching staff abiding a racist culture in order to “toughen up” players, but with an apolitical generation of young black men who have no problem with white people dropping n-bombs like Vanilla Sherbet in Fear of a Black Hat.
So many commentators have taken these comments and gone on the generalization express train, which always seems to stop at the “blame young black men station.” In this line of commentary, young black men don’t know about civil rights and have no conception of what their elders went through. If only they weren’t so ignorant, this Richie Incognito situation would never have happened.
Jason Whitlock, in a column that actually has a great deal to offer, writes that their acceptance of Richie Incognito as “honorary” is the fruits of our “incarceration nation” and a “prison yard” locker room that valorizes a certain kind of black masculinity—more represented by Incognito than the Stanford grad Martin—and has turned every young black man into wanting to be Adebisi from Oz, or risk being a “punk”.
This all sounds convincing, but only if you are predisposed to see NFL players already as a collection of thugs. Does the violence of the NFL or the violence of the neighborhoods of their youth spill over into player’s lives? Absolutely. But the idea that the NFL locker room is a “prison yard” where players are “predators” and white players drop n-bombs while black players laugh it up is not supported by facts. (This stereotype also slanders many of the more than 2 million people who live behind bars and are trying to hold onto their humanity in a deeply dehumanizing environment.)
The most important thing that anyone in the media can do with this story is to try and untangle what is part of “NFL locker room culture” and what is unique to the Miami Dolphins locker room.
Based on my reporting and all the reporting I’ve read from others it is clear that, yes, this type of bullying is far too common in the NFL. Yes, the kinds of so-called jokes about sexual assault and homophobia are also very common, although the homophobia, reflecting our culture, is getting better. But also every person I’ve talked to have said that “no way no how” do white players walk around the locker room dropping n-bombs in a friendly way as if they are just one of “the boyz.” As Ted Johnson former New England Patriots said to me, “The only time I ever heard white people saying it was if they were being racist and were actually looking for a fight.”
As much as I respect actor and former NFL player Terry Crews and his comments about the NFL—they called him Tyrone!—the league is not, as he said, “jail with money.” It takes an insane amount of focus, dedication and hard work to make it to the National Football League. Talking about players like they are thugs only reinforces both racial profiling and racism. It also valorizes is the very qualities that Richie Incognito seemed proud to represent: the bullying violence and disregard for others.
And as for this specific Miami Dolphins locker room, it sounds both like many other locker rooms but also unique in its toxicity. But as in every single locker room, it is a place like in every NFL locker room where the life of a player is incredibly precarious. There is no way that Richie incognito gets away with dropping n-bombs without approval from the coaching staff. Many are saying that they wish more players had been more confident to stand up to the 320-pound Richie Incognito. But those saying that should also take a step back and realize that is exactly what Jonathan Martin just did.
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