The reasoning behind Richie Incognito’s racist bullying of Miami Dolphin’s teammate Jonathan Martin must be fully understood before we can make any sense of the sketchy facts and conflicting opinions surrounding the story, or appreciate how the logic fails.

(Richie Incognito/ Credit: Creative Commons)

As the argument goes, Martin, a mild-mannered, cerebral Stanford grad, had to be “toughened up” to thrive in the heat of NFL battle. Like the verbal abuse heaped on raw recruits in boot camp to engender a fighting spirit, the anger provoked by racial derogation and talk of sodomizing Martin’s sister would, in theory, acquaint him with the fire in the belly that he needed to summon on Sundays to vanquish opposing linemen. This type of bullying, the reasoning goes, promotes the greater good – in this case, of winning football games.

The trouble with this reasoning is two fold. First, the target is non-consenting, since the strategy wouldn’t work if he was. The statement “Mr. Martin, we’ll be calling you horrible names and expressing the crudest desires with regard to your lovely family as a sort of drill, like running laps or lifting weights, so you’ll play better” would thwart the exercise.

Like the office or the plant where the rest of us labor, though, the locker room is a workplace subject to laws that protect the workforce. Certain employers and employees may yearn for the days when harassment wasn’t actionable and the workplace was as hostile as the boss chose to make it, but the legislature saw no need to carve out an exception for racist bullying or threats of violence on the offensive line any more than on the assembly line. Players’ accountsof the rough and tumble locker-room culture where “men are men” are no more morally compelling than wistful accounts of the days when women and minorities “knew their place.” And Dolphins’ head coach Joe Philbin wasn’t kidding when, asked about the locker-room harassment, he responded “I’m not concerned about any of that stuff. My focus is on [the team's next opponent] Tampa Bay.”

A second problem with bullying designed to toughen a subject lies in the choice of the person to do the bullying. For quality work, you must give the job to a genuine bully. And when, as reports from Miami Dolphins’ players indicate, the coaches felt Martin needed a little toughening, the task was assigned to an individual who is accomplished in this regard. Incognito, voted the dirtiest player in the NFL by his peers in 2009, was the perfect choice.

Unfortunately, when a bully is asked to bully for the greater good, he’s unable to distinguish where the greater good leaves off and his own sheer enjoyment of the process takes over. Foul excesses are guaranteed, and there’s no fail-safe mechanism for stopping the bullying when it becomes unendurable or impedes the target’s performance because the bully simply doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. Like the scorpion who fatally stings the frog transporting him across the river, it’s in his nature.

(Coach Philbin/ Credit: CC-BY-NC-SA by www.phinfever.com)

The willful blindness of Incognito’s teammates to the racist bullying and their support of him in the media is equally troubling – not to mention ironic, since many of those voicing support for the bully are African American. But, in the culture of American sports – and particularly in the NFL, where careers are short and fortunes must be amassed quickly – Incognito’s popularity among his colleagues makes perverse sense. By making Martin battle ready, whatever that means, Incognito was seen as helping protect the players’ vital interests. Incognito thus played a special role on the team, and Martin, in repudiating the process, became the villain.

And remember that Martin, who is soft spoken and reflective, and whose parents are Harvard-educated lawyers, was unlike most of his teammates. People find difference threatening, particularly if it relates to their own insecurities, and they bully – or ratify the bullying of others – in response.

A broader truth is lost in the media’s compulsive quest for more detail about the incident. All the vicarious glory we fans experience when our proxies on the playing field triumph, all the riches we lavish on them, and all the reverence that instills in them a sense that they needn’t live by the rules when they step off the field play a critical role in the misconduct rampant in the world of sports. From Penn State’s accommodation of pedophilia and rape to baseball’s decades-long toleration of steroids to Richie Incognito’s racist rant, our athletes and our coaches are – to a greater extent than we’ll admit – exactly what we’ve made them.

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Jay Sterling Silveris a law professor at St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami Gardens, Florida. His commentary has appeared inThe New York Timesand other national and local media.


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