Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard something about this unfolding story in the NFL involving the Miami Dolphins and the alleged harassment of offensive lineman Jonathan Martin by fellow veteran lineman Richie Incognito, and, possibly, others. More sordid details come out every day, or every couple hours, and who knows what the truth of the matter is and who is really at fault. So far it all seems like a lot of speculation with few facts, so I’m withholding judgment beyond the prejudices I carry with me all the time as it relates to professional athletes, mainly that they are far from being people we should exalt anywhere near what we do for anything beyond what they are able to do on the field. And even that regard is way overblown. But that isn’t my point.
What I find fascinating is the discussion going on in the media and public at large as it relates to conflict resolution. Stories like this bring out the most meat-headed of people, those folks who puff all up and blather on about how Martin is a “wuss” who didn’t stand up for himself, etc. That somehow any other response than fighting it out is unacceptable, or that even questioning this type of alleged conduct is a symptom of weakness.
The primary argument used to support that position, of course, is that somehow the NFL locker room is some kind of “special” place where rules of polite society don’t apply. Or that these men are some breed of ultimate warrior whose ability to overcome hardships unimaginable to the rest of us “normal” folks just to get on the field every week somehow entitles them to special treatment, special rules. I call bullshit on the whole thing.
A couple points. First of all, professional football players endure hardships unimaginable to me just to be who they are. But they also choose to play a sport that will likely leave them somewhat physically immobile by the time they reach the age I am now, if not worse. I can’t imagine making that choice either. Nor can I imagine the hardships that so very many people face who are living in poverty, raising families, working multiple jobs, going to those jobs sick or injured or in excruciating pain from any any number of maladies that they can’t afford to have treated. Meanwhile, an elite athlete has the best technology in the world to get him up and functioning again, and state of the art drugs to block that pain while he’s at it. Is one any tougher than the other? Personally, I don’t think so.
The second point is that this locker room environment is no different than any other collection of people in any trade that concentrates less cultured or educated personalities. A construction crew. A warehouse crew. A production line. I’ve been around all those institutions, and the same macho bullshit and pecking orders exist there too. So how do we go about deciding which of these places it’s okay to act like neanderthals and which ones are not? The thing is, if we allow it anywhere, those people who operate in that “special” environment are destined to carry it with them when they leave. It’s inevitable. We can’t have it both ways. It can’t be okay someplace and not another. We either accept it everywhere, or we don’t accept it at all.
I say not at all. It is the very attitude of placating certain pockets of our culture that creates situations where reported assaults get swept under the rug. Where high school athletes get away with gang rapes. Where packs of college thugs get away with beating and harassing gays, or anyone else that is a little different. I think clear lines can be drawn connecting all the behaviors we are seeing at play in this Miami Dolphins story to a multitude of similar stories in the news every day that are equally, or even more, horrifying. Because what happens is the fear of reprisal means these groups close ranks, and potentially lie or look the other way to protect the “sanctity” of their locker room or institution. It conditions people to blame the victim, to lash out at the whistle blower rather than at whatever they were blowing the whistle on.
The debate about it all is good, though. It brings things out in the open, discussions are conducted, arguments aired. Eventually things move forward in a progressive manner . . . hopefully. Words are important; all too often they lead to actions. It really boils down to a practice of politics as the personal. We shouldn’t care so much about what horrible things comes out of someone’s mouth, we should care about whatever it is that makes them feel like saying such a thing is safe in our presence. Speaking out against this type of behavior when we encounter it, even in small, quiet ways, may be the best way to eliminate it altogether.
After all, it seems to me the whole world is just one big locker room we’re all trying to navigate without getting infected with some kind of gross, itchy fungus.