Race, Class, Labor, and the (Not So) Incognito Controversy

I’ve long appreciated how athletics mirror and shape broader social relations (Consider, for instance, C.L.R. James’s Beyond a Boundary, which famously approached cricket as a metonym for colonialism.) From this standpoint, the recent NFL controversy involving Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin and Dolphins guard Richie Incognito presents an entanglement of racial, class, gender, and work dynamics.

To recap: In late October, Martin walked away from the team, alleging hazing by teammates that crossed the threshold into extreme, constant intimidation and harassment. Amid a review of the situation by the Dolphins and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), the team handed an indefinite suspension to Incognito, who is believed to be the ringleader in tormenting Martin. The major piece of evidence against him so far is a chain of crude texts and voicemails, one of which referred to Martin as a “half-nigger piece of shit” and threatened harm to him and his family. At first glance, given the pronounced masculinist culture surrounding the NFL, and the violent physicality of the sport itself, it is difficult to process how a 6-foot-5, 312-pound elite professional football player, with a $5-million contract, can be the victim of bullying. Predictably, other members of the team have circled the wagons around Incognito, criticizing Martin for not dealing with his teammate directly or otherwise “manning up.” Incidentally, this was the same sentiment I encountered last week in class with a few student-athletes, most of whom would eagerly switch places with Martin for the opportunity to play in the pros – and, as well, who recounted their own volatile experiences with other players in practice and on the field as evidence of how often these sorts of disputes, including racially freighted conflicts, occur. The consensus seemed to be that this was not a big deal, except for the fact that Martin made it one.   

http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/9941696/jonathan-martin-walked-twisted-world-led-incognito). Likening the Dolphins locker room to a “maximum-security prison yard,” Whitlock suggests that the players’ reaction is indicative of the racialized mass incarceration that “has turned segments of Black America so upside down that a tatted-up, N-word-tossing white goon is more respected and accepted than a soft-spoken, highly intelligent black Stanford graduate.” Whitlock’s anger with this paradox of race and manhood is understandable, and he is absolutely correct in one regard: It is only through the most twisted logic that anyone can validate Incognito’s misdeeds as representing a racially “authentic” black code of behavior. Nonetheless, Whitlock himself too easily falls for a black “underclass” discourse linking the black players’ attitudes to their roots in female-headed family dysfunction and cultural pathology, including what he terms “Hurricane Illegitimacy.” As if his views on class, culture, and black racial uplift could not be clearer, he also marshals the politics of “respectability” on Martin’s behalf, emphasizing the latter’s Ivy League class origins as the reason why he has a “developed brain and a supportive family unit,” and why he does not have to desperately cling to football as his only career option.    

While rightfully championing Martin and aiming to inject frank considerations of race and inequality into a conversation about football, Whitlock mainly succeeds in reifying black bourgeois exceptionalism and reinforcing the criminalization and cultural “othering” of the working-class communities of color from which many of the NFL’s players hail. Yes, Martin comes from a comfortable two-parent household nestled in a stratum of the U.S. middle class. So does Incognito, yet no one has seriously pondered whether white middling class communities breed young men and women with inclinations toward personal violence, or for that matter, substance abuse, mental illness and promiscuity. Aside from the problematic general assumption that Whitlock makes about race, gender, and class – i.e., that the middle and upper classes are the natural seedbed of moral behavior and social virtue – he absolves of responsibility the corporate culture of the NFL, which finds value and profit in the routinized violence, martial spirit, and cult of masculinity that define the sport. Incognito – voted the “NFL’s Dirtiest Player” in 2009 – has a well-earned reputation for overly aggressive conduct, but he has not persevered in professional football for this long simply because his peers, black and white alike, have tolerated it. To the contrary, his behavior comports with the values of the sports industry and its personnel, which rest on the principle of winning at any and all costs. Not surprisingly, one emerging news angle is that Dolphins coaches not only condoned Incognito’s conduct but also actively encouraged him in his campaign of intimidation in order to “toughen up” Martin.      

Paraphrasing Dave Zirin (my favorite sportswriter from the left), NFL owners are among the wealthiest, most influential people on the planet, while most of their players have a career averaging less than four years (though their injuries are lifelong) and die two decades earlier than the average U.S. male. The fans, meanwhile, are fleeced of their tax money to build stadiums to which the typical citizen cannot afford tickets. This is not to mention the fact that these stadiums themselves are often part of postindustrial metropolitan development schemes that brutally displace economically poor neighborhoods and communities. To be sure, the culture of the NFL ought to change – the attitudes and behavior prevalent among current NFL players, and the broken bodies of many former players, tell us this much. But as Martin is demanding through his actions, the change ought to start in the front office and not the locker room. The fact that the principals involved in this saga are all elite male athletes engaged in blood sport should not blind us to the fact that everyone, regardless of salient identities, is deserving of safe workspaces.


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