Richie Incognito ignited very public row in Miami and crossed the …
Miami Dolphins’ Richie Incognito, left, and Jonathan Martin are the protagonists in a race row that is being investigated by the NFL. Photograph: Lynne Sladky/AP
On 28 October, Jonathan Martin, a 24-year-old offensive lineman midway through his second season in the NFL2, sat down to eat with a group of team-mates. Immediately, they stood up and left the table. In response, Martin is said to have thrown his tray to the ground and stormed out.
He has not been back since. There is a good chance that he might never return. Because what was at first portrayed as a personal story about an individual struggling with nebulous “emotional issues”, has since become a national conversation in the United States3 about bullying, racism and, in the words of the Los Angeles Times writer Alexandra Le Tillier, “what it means to be a man in this era”4.
For Martin, that incident in the cafeteria had not truly been the beginning but rather the final straw. In the days that followed, a statement would be released by the player’s lawyer, David Cornwell, claiming that his client had been subjected to continuous harassment by senior colleagues during his time with the team. It was alleged that Martin had been verbally and physically abused, despite trying to befriend his tormentors. 5
One damning piece of evidence had already come to light. On 4 November, ESPN published the transcript of a voicemail message that had been left for Martin by his team-mate Richie Incognito. In it, the nine-year veteran threatened to defecate in his younger colleague’s mouth, as well as to “slap your real mother across the face”. Incognito signed off with a warning that, “you’re still a rookie.
I’ll kill you”. 6 Laced with laughter and expletives, those comments alone might have been enough to cause a stir. But for many Americans, the most shocking phrase uttered by Incognito came at the beginning of the message, when he casually referred to Martin as a “half-nigger piece of shit”.
Incognito is white, while Martin is mixed-race. This crossed a line. Miami suspended Incognito, while the player fell silent.
He had been strident in defending himself against the initial allegations, challenging reporters on Twitter over their use of anonymous sources. Now, though, other Dolphins players began to speak out on his behalf. Several of them likened Incognito’s relationship with Martin to that between two siblings. “Richie used to say, ‘Jonathan is like my little brother,'” noted the team’s quarterback, Ryan Tannehill. “I think that’s an accurate depiction.
He gave him a hard time. He messed with him. But he was the first one there to have his back in any situation.”
None of Incognito’s team-mates would condemn him over his use of a racial slur. According to the Miami Herald, one unnamed player even described him as an “honorary” black man7, saying: “Being a brother is more than just about skin colour. It’s about how you carry yourself. How you play.
Where you come from. What you’ve experienced. A lot of things.”
This, too, was an incendiary comment. The former Denver Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe led a chorus of ex-pros in angrily rejecting the suggestion that it could ever be acceptable to use a racial slur in a team’s locker room. The notion that there could ever be such a thing as an honorary skin tone was likewise roundly dismissed8.
Incognito finally gave his own side of the story in an interview aired by Fox Sports. “I’m not a racist,” he said. “To judge me by that one word is wrong. In no way, shape or form is it acceptable for me to use that word, even if it’s friend to friend. It’s thrown around a lot.
It’s a word I’ve heard Martin use a lot not saying it’s right for when I did it in the voicemail, but there are a lot of colourful words thrown around in the locker room that we don’t use in everyday life.” This was, at best, a half apology, any show of contrition immediately hedged with reminders of a context that outsiders could not possibly understand. Incognito also reasserted the notion that he and Martin were friends, pointing out that they had exchanged more than 1,000 text messages in the time that they had known each other.
One in particular, sent by Martin three days after he left the team, seemed to exonerate Incognito. “Yeah, I’m good, man,” it read. “It’s insane bro but just know I don’t blame you guys at all it’s just the culture around football and the locker room got to me a little.” Not everyone was convinced. Could such words really be taken at face value?
If Martin did truly feel intimidated by Incognito, might he not be acting out of some kind of latent fear? These questions will remain difficult to answer for as long as Martin declines to speak on the matter. He has made no public statements since his departure.
He was due to meet with the Dolphins’ owner, Stephen Ross, on Friday, but that was postponed after the NFL launched an investigation into the affair. Martin was instead interviewed by the lawyer appointed by the league to lead the inquiry, Ted Wells. It may be weeks, if not longer, before we know the outcome of this process.
Wells is expected to hold extensive conversations with not only the two protagonists but also a host of other players and team officials. As well as the specifics of Martin’s relationship with Incognito, he is expected to address the broader question of how young players were treated on the team. The existence of hazing the ritual humiliation of new colleagues as part of their initiation has long been an accepted fact of NFL life.
Although all teams officially have policies against it, anecdotal evidence suggests that it persists for many of them at least in some mild form, with rookies perhaps obliged to carry senior players’ helmets off the practice field or perform talent shows in pre-season9. But Martin’s case has highlighted the ways such behaviour might be taken too far. When news of his departure broke, allegations were made of senior players obliging rookies to pick up the tab for dinners costing as much as $30,000.
The veracity of such claims is yet to be established, but certainly they make uncomfortable reading for league officials. The NFL cannot be seen to support its players extorting money from one another, just as it cannot condone the casual use of racial slurs. Most of all, the NFL cannot afford to take this matter lightly.
On Wednesday, ESPN aired the news that participation numbers for Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth American football organisation, had fallen by a shocking 9.5% between 2010 and 2012. Amid growing concern about the long-term implications of head injuries, the fear is that many parents are now choosing to steer their kids towards alternative pursuits. 10 Hazing is certainly not unique to American football, but events in Miami will damage perceptions of the sport.
What message is conveyed to aspiring young players, if the professionals are not required to behave like adults?
- ^ More from the Guardian on Miami (www.theguardian.com)
- ^ More from the Guardian on NFL (www.theguardian.com)
- ^ More from the Guardian on United States (www.theguardian.com)
- ^ the words of the Los Angeles Times writer Alexandra Le Tillier, “what it means to be a man in this era” (www.latimes.com)
- ^ Martin had been verbally and physically abused, despite trying to befriend his tormentors. (profootballtalk.nbcsports.com)
- ^ Incognito signed off with a warning that, “you’re still a rookie.
I’ll kill you”.(espn.go.com)
- ^ According to the Miami Herald, one unnamed player even described him as an “honorary” black man (miamiherald.typepad.com)
- ^ ever be such a thing as an honorary skin tone was likewise roundly dismissed (www.theguardian.com)
- ^ to carry senior players’ helmets off the practice field or perform talent shows in pre-season (www.nfluk.com)
- ^ parents are now choosing to steer their kids towards alternative pursuits. (espn.go.com)