Life, economics, politics, psychology, sociology, racism and other isms, law, history, journalism/media…all through the lens of sport.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin: two sides of the corruption of power and NFL culture

Forget, for but a moment, about the allegations against Richie Incognito of hazing and workplace harassment of Jonathan Martin (don't worry, we'll return to it momentarily), and look Incognito's behaviour on open display in a bar (which is to say, not in "the locker room"), as depicted in this video...

The issue to consider here is the corruption that comes from power, and the encouragement for NFL players to change the negative culture of stigmatizing mental/emotional health.

What power are we talking about? The power that comes from being a celebrity

Starting in college for most, and as early as high school for some, the attention and doting of parents, college recruitment programs, and agents salivating over signing the next pro draft prospect can get to a kid's head. The promises of a future of fame and riches can be quite disorientating. People quickly get quite accustomed to being followed around by handlers taking care of things, smoothing things over, fixing things for such people.

And then, they make it, and it all comes true. The money. The life. The power. The excess.

This isn't limited to pro sports. Actors, singers, heirs to significant family fortunes...any time people have the power to buy support, buy people willing to do anything to keep the frills of association flowing, and buy themselves out of trouble, there's less external incentive to keep one's thoughts, words and actions in check. And if a person's internal, moral compass loses its calibration, few in their entourage may be courageous enough to speak up and attempt to keep them on track, especially when that person can easily be fired and replaced from the next person in line to step in and get paid to join the hangers-on.

It is well-documented the effect that the death of Cus D'Amato had on Mike Tyson, removing that external rudder that kept him in check and left Tyson in reckless pursuit of excess. It's also well-documented how people would do whatever Tiger Woods told them to do in...certain establishments of lesser repute, providing no rudder to keep him in check, and leaving him in reckless pursuit of excess. I've previously written about the behaviour of Ben Roethlisberger's recklessness and the media's enabling rhetoric. And examples abound.

NFL player confusion

Getting back to the matter of Incognito and Martin, the reactions from Miami Dolphins team mates that initially came out seemed to overwhelmingly castigate Martin for seeking counselling to deal with the harassment he felt from Incognito. Brian Phillips wrote an excellent article highlighting the conflict. Given the preponderance of mental health issues that plagues NFL players, one should commend Martin for seeking help before resorting to suicide (e.g. Junior Seau) - or worse, murder-suicide (e.g Jovan Belcher) - as has been the tragic last act for too many players (as observed in the wake of the recent suicide of Paul Oliver, 29 years old) or former players who did not get the help they needed in time.

And, the chorus of support for Martin's heroism - yes, heroism - that should have come from the players was instead an unfortunate reinforcement of machismo that stigmatizes those who allow vulnerability and honesty to crack the veneer of the invincible pro athlete; a machismo that perpetuates unsustainable and unsupportable pressure on players, who really are just human beings like the rest of us in spite of the money, who can crack under that pressure. And when people that big (big in size of body, bank account, ego) crack, the fallout is going to be big, too.

Of all people, it is in the best interests of the players themselves to hail Martin as a hero, for being willing to take the ridicule in order to be a leader; his courage in seeking help should be a beacon to the rest of his players association brothers, guiding them out of the darkness of the ridiculous burdens of "handling conflict like a man" and into the light of dealing constructively with the frailties of the human condition, which we all must face in life on this earth.

The NFL has recently begun to earnestly engage discussion about the realities of brain injury among its players. The Players Association ought also consider proper counselling for players in dealing with the corruption that can come from the life of being a pro athlete, starting in their rookie season. Of course, not all players lose their minds – for every exception that was Ryan Leaf or JaMarcus Russell out there, there are plenty of players exemplifying the rule, who played their careers trouble-free, and moved on to productive lives whether within or beyond football.

But, for those who show a predilection for letting the stardom and money get to their heads, more support could be available to help them keep their lives in check.

Of course, forcing them to avail themselves of whatever help may already be available is apparently not easy.

However, the current tone of support for the bad behaviour - which is against the law in any place of employment - certainly isn't helping anyone, least of all the players, who need real support to the contrary.

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