Something’s foul in the Miami Dolphins locker room, and it’s not just the smell of hard-nosed muscle men sweating it out on the football field. Nor is it the stench of a locker-room subculture in which anything goes, anything can be said among a family of teammates, and one just has to have a skin thick enough to take it, as though this were a prison or a gang-ridden neighborhood.
No one should be particularly shocked that in this world, where coaches instruct teammates to toughen each other up, someone with the turbulent history of Richie Incognito, a white All America lineman, would use racial slurs and sexually violent innuendo to “toughen up” Jonathan Martin, a biracial All America lineman. If you are shocked, then you don’t understand the heaving, testosterone-fueled beast that is the NFL locker room.
The real surprise here isn’t the bullying or even the racial taunts. It’s the way so many other players, including black players enmeshed in this locker room gang mentality, defended the abusive Incognito on the grounds that he was “blacker” than the more mild-mannered Martin. Thus, the issue of who’s black enough once again gets steeped into the consciousness of African Americans, this time by black people who say the distinct honor of blackness, the “ghetto pass” as it were, is given to the n-word-slinging white man.
Why is Incognito being treated so generously by black players? He grew up in a middle class family and has had trouble staying out of trouble. His volatile resume suggests, to some of his teammates, that he can relate to the black experience. Martin, whose parents attended Harvard, and who went to Stanford himself, was too soft, declared some of his black teammates as they rallied around Incognito. In this scenario, Martin is apparently “white.” He failed, in his experience as a black man, to arm himself with the requisite ex-con mentality.
“I don’t expect you to understand because you’re not black,” a former black Dolphins player told reporter Armando Salguero of The Miami Herald, defending Incognito’s black pass. “But being a black guy, being a brother is more than just about skin color. It’s about how you carry yourself. How you play. Where you come from. What you’ve experienced. A lot of things.”
Let’s be clear: The Dolphins bullying issue is not about blackness or race at all. This is about class.
Many of us in the world outside of the locker room or prison view this statement as not only confounding, but ignorant. It is about not knowing one’s history, not understanding of the sacrifices made by those who opened the door to black players in the NFL. It is also tragic. It suggests that “blackness” has a single definition, and by that definition a black child should not strive to attend Stanford.
Once these black players leave their locker rooms and enter the real world, which they will sooner than they think, one has to wonder how they will respond when a 300-pound white man calls them the n-word like Incognito did to Martin? Will their minds tell them to give the white guy an honorary black pass, or to stand their ground? “Welcome to Incarceration Nation,” writes Jason Whitlock of ESPN.com, “where the mindset of the Miami Dolphins’ locker room mirrors the mentality of a maximum-security prison yard and where a wide swath of America believes the nonviolent intellectual needs to adopt the tactics of the barbarian.”
Let’s be clear: This is not about blackness or race at all. This is about class, the socioeconomic circumstances that come to define where we stand in the world, and whom, it seems, we stand beside. And one might argue that is even worse. It suggests that blacks in this locker room aim to protect the very circumstances that were once deemed oppressive — to be viewed as a thug regardless of one’s accomplishments.
In an NFL locker room, you are trained to protect your fellow teammate. You are trained to walk with him through hell on the field and secure victory. You are trained to think of each other as family. But something definitely stinks when a black man is trained to believe what a segment of America believes — that if he isn’t a convict, he must be a white man.
Megan Tench, a former Boston Globe staff member, is studying for a master’s degree in psychology at University of Massachusetts Boston.