ON OCTOBER 28, JONATHAN MARTIN left the Miami Dolphins. Martin, 24 years old and in his second NFL season, briefly checked himself into a Miami-area hospital to be treated for emotional distress. Six days later, the Dolphins suspended left tackle Richie Incognito indefinitely as they launched an investigation into allegations of harassment.
Incognito, who lines up with Martin to protect quarterback Ryan Tannehill, frequently subjected Martin to insults, extortion, and harassment. His aggressions towards Martin, captured on voicemails and text messages, featured racial slurs and derogatory comments towards Martin’s sister. The transcript of one voicemail has been published and syndicated via ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Grantland ran it without redactions:
“hey, wassup, you half nigger piece of shit. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] shit in your fucking mouth. [I’m going to] slap your fucking mouth. [I’m going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. Fuck you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”
When the story broke, many reporters questioned whether Martin would play in the NFL again: He violated a code by taking something that should’ve been an internal matter and turning it public. Tony Siragusa, an ex-lineman-turned-analyst, told Dan Patrick, “When you’re in the locker room, that’s like your home… Things are handled in there that shouldn’t be brought to the media. The media, and really the real world, can’t handle a lot of those things.” Siragusa sets up a clear opposition between the locker room and “the real world,” one that suggests that behavior in the former does not mimic behavior in the latter. Hiding the locker room from national debate is a part of color-blind ideology that hides discussions of race under discussions of sports culture. The outrage over Martin’s departure stems, in part, from how it brings race to the fore.
Popular representations of black masculinity in American sports are still fraught with racist histories and narratives. In Black Sexual Politics, Patricia Hill Collins writes extensively about the view of the black body as the buck—a beast to be tamed by the white man. This fear persists alongside fears of aggressive, rough, threatening black bodies.
Popular sports culture magnifies this problem, both in the media and inside the locker room. In theory, sports exist in a vacuum: All is supposed to be left on the field. Yet Incognito’s aggression is part of a larger culture of taming the black body. It’s frustrating, then, that race has slipped from the commentary, especially beause Incognito insists that he’s “not a racist”—a claim made to Fox Football analyst Jay Glazer in his only public appearance since being suspended.
This is, perhaps, because our conversations about Martin and Incognito reveal of a set of racially prejudiced tendencies we’d rather not examine. The biracial Martin presents a paradox: as a black athlete, he needs to be tamed into submission; as a white athlete, he has not earned his rough masculinity.
Incognito, 30 years old and in his 8th NFL season, is white. He played in college at the University of Nebraska. He is known in league circles as a tough guy. A member of the Dolphins’ six-person “leadership council,” Incognito was allegedly tasked by the coaching staff with “toughening up” Martin. In his leadership role, Incognito frequently held offensive line meetings at strip clubs, fining players if they did not attend.
Martin attended Harvard-Westlake, a prestigious Los Angeles private school, before going to Stanford, where he completed his degree in classics in 2012. His mother, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather are all Harvard graduates. Martin told his high-school newspaper that he chose to go to Stanford because “there’s no way” he would pass up the opportunity to get “an Ivy League level education and play Pac-10 football at the same time.”
At his academic institutions, Martin was known as “Moose,” an imposing physical figure. “Moose,” like the buck, suggests a body-to-be-tamed. Yet Stanford’s media guide still described Martin as a “gentle giant in every sense, soft-spoken and articulate, more likely to reason with somebody than start a brawl.” Even as a physical force, Martin’s intellect went against constructions of black masculinity.
But to the Dolphins, Martin was “Big Weirdo,” a man whose introspection and intelligence clashed with the rest of the offensive line. No longer a standout for his big frame, Martin’s status as a “gentle giant” did not translate to the NFL. To explain why Martin would be the target of harassment, Vic Eumont, Martin’s high school coach, suggested, “Before, he wasn’t around Nebraska, LSU kind of guys. He’s always been around Stanford, Duke, Rice kind of players. In locker rooms full of Nebraska, LSU, Southern Cal players, Miami players—they’ll look at this as a weakness.”
Media discussion of Incognito often isolates him from his team, his sport, and his broader cultural context. He is one bad man misbehaving. To focus so closely on personal flaws is often exonerating: there is a problem but it is not our problem, as a society, or even as sports fans who support the league. Instead, it is his problem, their problem. Incognito is simply doing his job—his title, after all, is offensive lineman.
Yet Incognito’s voicemail to Martin highlights the way black masculinity is always constructed by white ideology. Incognito’s invocation of a racial slur is meant to mold Martin into the type of black man the NFL expects him to be. “This isn’t an issue of bullying,” Incognito insists.
“This is an issue of mine and Jon’s relationship,” Incognito continues, “where I’ve taken stuff too far and I didn’t know it was hurting him.” But thinking about harassment as a problem between two teammates obscures its broader cultural logic. Incognito is a product of a color-blind system that allows him to believe his remarks outside of context—he’s not a racist. Instead, his reasoning goes, the issue only extends to the boundaries of his relationship with Martin.
In the past two weeks, numerous members of the Miami Dolphins have voiced their support for Incognito. “Richie Incognito isn’t a racist,” said tight end Michael Egnew. Mike Wallace agreed: “I don’t think he was out of hand. I have a lot of respect for Richie.” Egnew and Wallace are both black and played college football at Missouri and Mississippi, respectively.
Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins’ white quarterback, said, “If you had asked Jon Martin a week before who his best friend on the team was, he would have said Richie Incognito.”
Yet another member of the Dolphins, speaking under the condition of anonymity, told the Miami New Times, “Richie is honorary... 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.”
Members of the Dolphins imply that Incognito earned blackness from his teammates in a way that Martin did not. Incognito’s performance of toughness and aggression aligns more closely with constructions of black masculinity than Martin’s upper-class background. Following Patricia Hill Collins’s argument that racism now lies predominantly in cultural associations, Martin’s perception as soft is tied intricately to his half-whiteness, his class status, and his education. For the Dolphins, it wasn’t just that Martin didn’t embody his black masculinity—it’s that he didn’t appear to want it. To them, he was “Big Weirdo,” not “Moose.”
By accepting him as a “brother,” members of the Dolphins granted Incognito permission to use certain language. Nate Jackson, a former player writing for New York Magazine, affirms: “If Richie Incognito said the N-word in a malicious way, those teammates would have taken care of the problem.” This logic frames Martin, not Incognito, as the one breaking code.
While Incognito is allowed to participate in black masculinity, his teammates read Martin’s decision to abstain as abnormal, even weak. Martin was placed in a double bind: He needed to be “toughened up” in order to claim a black masculinity which would, in turn, have to be tamed by the very same white men who forced it on him.
The very construction of the team is designed to elide the differences of its individual members. All are united under common goal; we let it all out on the field and leave it there. But Martin’s decision to leave the team challenges this entire system. Martin “wasn’t merely exercising his own choice to leave,” argues NPR’s Gene Demby, “but indicting their choices to stay.” In discussing Martin’s departure, it’s necessary to look not just at Richie Incognito, the Miami Dolphins locker room culture, or (black) masculinity in the NFL, but at the system as a whole.
TRISTAN RODMAN B’15 is with Gene Demby.