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The NFL’s Warrior Problem

Teammates and NFL personalities sticking up for Richie Incognito only perpetuate the foolish attitudes that lead to misguided hazing. (Getty Images)

There really isn’t much to say about Richie Incognito, or at least nothing good. The indefinitely suspended Miami Dolphins guard has become the face of hazing in the NFL thanks to his intense love for racial slurs and supremely unsanitary threats of bathroom violence. In a vacuum, they’re the sort of base vulgarities you’d expect from a dangerously overgrown teenager prone to outright sociopathy. The video of a shirtless Incognito cutting an especially unhinged Ultimate Warrior promo would be comically sad if not for the fact that 6-foot-3, 320-pound rampaging beast-racists tend to be dangerous. Teammate Jonathan Martin has thankfully attested to that.

In doing so Martin has branded himself an outsider in the eyes of the same culture that gave Incognito not just safe harbor, but adulation. It’s a culture that holds tight to the painfully outdated mythology of the NFL player as “warrior,” a poorly coded stand-in for masculine gender norms that value logically bankrupt notions of manhood. By finally refusing to be treated as anything less than a professional, Martin has somehow given his co-workers and colleagues free reign to declare him a “coward” and “weak.” The overarching presumption is that Martin, a friendly Stanford graduate born to a family of professional overachievers, should have fought the mammoth bigot with obvious rage issues and hoped for the best. Because, y’know, that’s how a real warrior resolves a workplace issue.

This argument was made in disconcertingly plain fashion by former NFL defensive lineman Mike Golic in what could be charitably termed a “discussion” with fellow ESPN employee Dan Le Batard. When Le Batard had the temerity to suggest that solving problems with violence is a pointlessly regressive approach, Golic went for immediate rhetorical emasculation by saying “obviously, you’ve never done anything manly in your life.” A half-hearted backtrack by Golic did nothing to conceal what he’d already laid bare: The NFL measures manhood using savagely Darwinian standards and the players sucked into that culture will sacrifice basic standards of humanity in its defense.

Martin’s own teammates have already stepped forward to not just unequivocally defend Incognito, but question the validity of Martin’s blackness while granting Incognito “honorary” status. This brand of collective victim-blaming is the universal sign of a rotten culture. When faced with the culture’s own ghoulishness, those inside it will excuse the most unacceptable of behaviors and declare war on anyone who dares question them. The culture’s norms are so hardwired that they exist in their minds as absolute metaphysical truth.

You’d have more luck arguing that two plus two equals nine with a mathematician than you would convincing Mike Golic that violence in the workplace is generally unacceptable. Even Ricky Williams, a former player whose history of mental illness gave fuel to socially retrograde criticisms, questioned Martin’s mental strength. Things are pretty backwards when a player whose very sanity was imperiled by playing football will turn around and defend psychological torment. While not every former player has joined the echo chamber of inhumanity, enough have to make clear that the consequences for taking a stand against the NFL’s culture are steep.

It’s a sick joke considering the underlying conceit at play here is that NFL players are warriors, which, come on. Athletes playing a game that amounts to nothing more than entertainment in the grand scheme of things are not in any way warriors. Compare a richly compensated and glorified NFL player to an advocate for abortion access living under the threat of violence and you tell me who rates out as a warrior — the person playing a game or the one willing to make enormous sacrifices for a just cause. If the defining characteristic of a warrior is bravery, then the answer becomes obvious.

Unless of course you, a human being presumably capable of sound judgment, deem a monstrous campaign of mental terrorism a marker of bravery. If so, then of course Richie Incognito was only upholding the true-real-man-not-a-girl-MAN-PENIS-MAN ideal of the NFL by preying on a vulnerable coworker to soothe his own glaring male insecurities. Actually, that’s called punching down and it’s a coward’s move. Every single person defending Richie Incognito and blaming Jonathan Martin is a coward, and it’s telling that their song-and-dance is not the least bit surprising. It’s part and parcel of their culture, a claustrophobic funhouse that takes our most basic shared morals and twists them into an unrecognizable mutation unfit for mainstream society — and all this in the name of giving adults free reign to play out childishly cruel war games. It’s as sadistic as it is stupid.

The start of a solution is rejecting the warrior mythology and calling it out as the distinctly male cowardice that it is. Grown-ass men puffed-up on ultimate-dude fantasies borrowed from Michael Bay and left to their own devices tend not to live up to their idealized self-conceptions. Buying into that nonsense gives the culture an implicit hall-pass necessary to its metastatic creep. Of course, a mass rejection of the warrior myth rests on the NFL’s willingness to break its own kayfabe and treat football like the professional enterprise that it is.

Richie Incognito’s football career may be all but over, but if the result of the NFL’s investigation is anything less than an outright ban on any and all hazing then they’re only guaranteeing that Incognito’s successors will go to greater lengths to keep their sadism under wraps. Forcing this culture of nightmarishly senseless machismo further underground may save the NFL some short-term headaches and headlines, but it won’t fix the problem. Given how the NFL has handled its traumatic brain injury crisis, you have to wonder if the league will even acknowledge the problem’s existence.

Welcome to America’s Game.

by Tomas Rios