The hardest thing to get around?
Between us and them.
Between the barbarians and the people who cheer them.
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Between the barbarians and even the lawyer who investigated them.
Between the barbarians and even the coaches paid to keep them in line.
One man quit his millionaire job, so America’s most popular sport was forced to let us into the bloody sausage factory last week, to examine just how some of that tasty football is made sometimes. What the Miami Dolphins gave us was a lot more real than anything you've ever seen on HBO’s popular and edited Hard Knocks, critically acclaimed and NFL approved, which is to say it was a lot more unsanitary. But it is important to remember one thing if you winced at the details in the report that embarrassed the organization and seemed to exonerate Jonathan Martin:
The Dolphins — the guys who actually wear the uniforms and bleed and break for this cause — sided with the bad guys.
Have you heard one Dolphin say one bad thing about Richie Incognito?
When the locker room doors finally opened, and the players could be heard, there was only one voice, and it was united. Those players supported the bully who was being banished for his behavior and crushed the victim who had fled. The people who work in that workplace, the ones who know it better than we do and better than the lawyer who spent a few hours there talking to them, all sided with the disgraced, and they did so loudly and angrily and with the harmony of a choir even as the entire organization sank deeper into the scandalized sewage with every syllable. There wasn’t a single dissenter, in fact. Even after this mess was media-mushroom-clouding on TV, the stink shaming the owner, the general manager, the coaches and every crevice of the organization, you couldn't find a single Dolphins player supporting the victim here.
What, exactly, are we to make of that?
There are a lot of clarity-of-hindsight gasbags on TV denouncing the lack of leadership in the Dolphins’ locker room now. But maybe it wasn’t a lack of leadership. Maybe it was an acceptance and understanding of that particular jungle. They didn’t support Martin because they don’t support him. They haven't said, “I'm sorry” because they aren’t. We can all moralize about this now from the outside, choosing sides, but this wasn't about morality and immorality to the people on the inside. It was about strength and weakness. The players in that locker room think Martin is a soft, whining quitter who caused all this because he wasn’t tough enough for their survival-of-the-fittest workplace.
Also, as an added bonus, they think he’s a snitch, which is ironic because a lot of this could have been avoided if he had indeed been a snitch, telling someone, anyone, about his issues instead of masking them to fit in with the bullies. The one place Martin opted to hold on to his dignity was by not snitching. That’s the one football code he abided by, the one that kept getting him tormented, the one that protected the bullies. And he looks like a snitch anyway now because we have far, far more details than we ever would have had if he had privately and actually been one to his head coach.
That they think this way is obviously and awfully wrong. To us. But it doesn't much matter whether you think the players are right or wrong to think this way about him. In explaining how and why this happened, it only matters that they think this way about him, and that they don’t think it wrong to think this way about him. Ted Wells determined it was wrong, and Dolphins coach Joe Philbin says it was wrong, and owner Stephen Ross has put together a task force to study just how wrong it was, and the NFL will probably soon punish people as if it is wrong. But isn't part of the problem that the people inside that room don't seem to think it was wrong?
“The locker room is racist, homophobic and sexist,” Charles Barkley says. “And I miss it.”
That’s one of the things getting missed here even by the investigator. Wells is not a former football player. He is a lawyer gathering facts. And, of course, he found harassment in this workplace, as he would have found in various forms in whatever football locker room he had been assigned to investigated with a hundred-plus interviews. It can be a crude, violent, arrested-development place. Most of the normal American workplaces outside of that huddle have sensitivity training and human-resource-department complaints and team-building exercises that involve retreats and sack races. This particular workplace thinks that the cute team-building exercises involve shaving the rookie’s eyebrows and carving an etch of a penis into his haircut. And those are just the kinds of testosterone-soaked bonding they let us see, mind you.
Richie Incognito is an extreme, obviously, a cartoonish and reckless meat-head. But Martin is an extreme, too, as the report reveals, weak by his own admission, thoughtfully complaining to his mother that he was unwilling to stand up for himself. You needed both of these extremes to create the larger one that is this scandal, two elements that by themselves are not quite that volatile mixing to blow up the professor’s entire chemistry lab. If there were an emotional spectrum of this particular workplace, Incognito would be on one end and Martin would be on the other, but who do you imagine most football players would be closer to on that spectrum? Incognito or Martin? The Incognitos tend to get rewarded in this workplace, even when their idiocy spills into streets and bars. The Martins tend to get weeded out. When the very nature of your game is barbaric and primal, it is easier to try to tame the savages than it is to make the civilized more savage. There are plenty of normal people in this workplace, in the middle. But this is what happens with the extremes.
And so you have a situation in that locker room where the people who had the very most information about this scandal seem to have the very least problem with the behavior. Martin, civil and thoughtful, had to feel like he was trying to reason with piranha. Must have been awful to feel that surrounded. But it is also why Ricky Williams and Jason Taylor went out of their way to say that football isn’t for everyone. So Martin left. That’s how the weeding out sometimes happens, usually before it ever gets as far as the pros. And it confirmed to the savages what the savages already believed — that Martin was a weak quitter who couldn’t be trusted when things required savagery. It is why that fine book among players fined Mike Pouncey $100 for an FBI subpoena involving a murder investigation and Martin $1 million for being a pussycat, so to speak.
This conversation got hijacked by people wanting to sermonize about the very real dangers of bullying, but you can see how somebody as unstable, lopsided and rewarded as Incognito would wonder if it isn’t his very job description to be a bully.
On the outside of that huddle, we can all be appalled by the idea of preying on the weak, even though so much of every football game plan is designed to do so. On the outside of that huddle, the investigator can side with Martin with an assortment of disturbing facts. But, after all the noise and all those interviews, this issue remains unchanged inside that huddle:
It so very wrong to blame the victim here.
But it appears most if not all of Martin’s teammates do.