When news first broke of Miami Dolphins football player Richie Incognito harassing biracial teammate Jonathan Martin, it appeared to be a straightforward case of a racist with anger management problems tormenting a younger player. It had all the markings of bullying and hazing, excessive even for the locker room culture of the NFL.
However, sources have since come forward that indicate what actually happened may be more nuanced. They claim Incognito was given explicit direction by Dolphins coaches to toughen up Martin to make him a better man and player. Many players and pundits apparently agree with those coaches’ suggestions. They’ve wondered aloud why Martin didn’t just “man up” and confront Incognito. In questioning this, they implicitly confirm he needed lessons in manhood – though all agree that the use of racial epithets and threatening family members took things too far. Instead of a confrontation though, Martin left the team and made public complaints about his treatment.
In doing so, he committed two cardinal sins that are especially forbidden to men: being weak and tattling. In the eyes of some, Martin couldn’t take being teased, so he went home to his mother and sought help for emotional distress – and that’s not what real men do.
What is real “masculinity”?
Though the prevailing narratives are about locker room bullying, hazing, and the associated racial undertones, in this instance, the root of it all is the notion of masculinity.
In America, and particularly in the hyper-macho culture of professional football, calling a guy’s manhood and masculinity into question is perceived to be one of the most insulting things that can be done. The things we recognize as manly, such as strength, prowess, and leadership, are the attributes by which a man and his value are measured in masculine cultures like America. An assault on this quality, then, can be interpreted as an attack on a significant part of a man’s identity and self-worth.
When this happens, many men feel that the only option is to fight back . The urge to defend one’s honor, demand respect, and protect one’s turf is born out of the idea of what manhood is supposed to look like. So when Martin did not confront his tormentor, but instead showed emotion and sought help and comfort, his manhood was further called into question.
Positive and negative effects of machismo
Masculinity and manhood are powerful concepts that can have positive and negative effects. Studies have shown that men who exhibit such masculine characteristics such as the pursuit of hierarchical status, dominance, and risk-taking had higher levels of courage, endurance, resilience, and autonomy. Yet they have also shown that failing to ask for help and the restriction of showing emotions – both associated with masculinity – have detrimental effects. These “be a man” and “suck it up” attitudes increase stress-induced cardiovascular problems, unreported depression in men, and can contribute to men’s suicide rate being four times higher than that of women.
When masculinity is perverted and left unchecked, you end up with the bullying and hazing that’s found when men assemble and organize, such as in sports teams, fraternities, and even the military. In these environments, oftentimes there’s the puzzling belief that subjecting weak or effeminate members to verbal and physical abuse will not only make them more manly, but will also forge a bond of brotherhood. This practice is as old as the concept of masculinity is. And it appears this is what the Dolphins locker room crowd believed.
No excuse for extreme abuse
There is nothing that excuses Incognito’s behavior, even if most of the likely locker room antics conformed to traditional practices of masculinity. Moreover, the ongoing victim blaming that faults Martin for not fighting back only reinforces the faulty aspects of manhood “training” that caused the incident in the first place.
Plus, Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland – not a fellow player, but an administrative guy in a business suit – is alleged to have advised Martin to physically assault Incognito. Again, fighting aggressive masculinity with more aggression doesn’t seem to solve the problem, but is often deemed as the proper course of action for men.
An NFL investigation into this particular incident has begun, and it is expected the suspended Incognito will face further punitive action, and perhaps even be kicked off the team. But let’s be clear: any punishment Incognito receives will not be because he attempted to make a weak man more masculine, but because of the way he went about it.
The need to challenge notions of masculinity
What is being challenged here is the use of racial epithets and threatening language, not the concept of masculinity that presumes weakness in a man who doesn’t accept bad treatment and seeks help.
This is the deeper question that the nation should be wrestling with since it has implications for our national policies, out treatment of women, and the health of our boys.
But, once the lights are off of the Dolphins franchise, I suspect we’ll just suck it up and move on, which would be a shame. There is an opportunity here to contemplate the best aspects of traditional masculinity, and eschew those this incident shows are destructive. It would be a loss to American society not to take it.
Theodore R. Johnson is a military officer and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. A graduate of Hampton and Harvard Universities, he is an opinion writer on race, politics, and public service. He currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Theodore R. Johnson on Twitter at @T_R_Johnson_III.