Commentary

Commentary: 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.

Yet, this indifference overlooks the fact that the NFL is the world’s most lucrative sports league, with its 32 member clubs worth an average of $1.17 billion (According to Forbes, the Dolphins are valued at $1,074 million, and the franchise’s 2012 revenue was $268 million.)  Moreover, the players are represented by the NFLPA, a collective bargaining agent.  What this means is that the football club, among other things, is a work environment.  However rough the sport may be, or however much the players may be paid, they have the right, individually as well as collectively, to raise workplace concerns and pursue appropriate remedies.  Granted, this goes against the grain of homosocial work cultures in which men have been expected to stoically endure physical and emotional punishment as a sign of self-mastery.  Yet, one need look no further than the growing alarm over concussions in American football to see how debilitating, even deadly, this model of manliness can be for its very own proponents.  Moreover, this will to self-mastery has also been a prelude to enforcing one’s mastery over others, whether through sexual violence against women or the domination of other men perceived as weak.  Further, as is too often the case in other areas of work life (including the academy) when an employee lodges a complaint of harassment or discrimination, he or she invariably becomes “the problem” instead of the climate of harassment.

Consequently, despite Incognito’s well-publicized history of extreme behavior, involving run-ins with teammates, opponents and coaches extending back to his days at the University of Nebraska, there is every reason to believe that his professional career will continue.  Martin, on the other hand, may very well be finished because of his whistleblowing, given that he will have a difficult time finding acceptance in any NFL club.  Therein is the tragedy.

. . .

To continue reading this post, please see the full version at the Labor and Working-Class History Association blog.

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Clarence_Lang

Clarence Lang is an Associate Professor of African and African-American Studies at The University of Kansas, and a former Langston Hughes Visiting Professor. He received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2004.  This post is excerpted with permission of the author.

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