A lot has been written over the past week regarding the hazing of Jonathan Martin by now former Dolphins player Richie Incognito. Word was just released that Richie had possibly been instructed by the coaching staff to “toughen up” Martin after he missed a voluntary workout. For those unaware, some of Incognito’s tactics included forcing Martin to pay tens of thousands of dollars for trips and meals, and, more egregiously, attacking Martin, who is biracial, with racial and family-targeted slurs. I won’t replicate the language here, as I find it very distasteful, and abundantly available elsewhere.
This entry attempts to look at the culture of football as I’ve personally witnessed it – by touching on the issue of jock mentality – which leads directly to the now two major issues facing the league and sport as a whole: severe head trauma and hazing.
For my readers who don’t know, I am a born and raised Texan. I am blessed to have two older half-brothers, an older half-sister, and a twin brother. From the time my twin and I were two years old, we were peppered with Dallas Cowboys gear and watched football with the family. One of our oldest pictures together has us in diapers and shirts adoring the famous star. With much older siblings, most of my formative years were spent attending football games in Grayson County to watch them star in year-to-year Texas high school football battles. My oldest brother helped anchor a state championship team at Denison in 1984, and the younger of the two propelled his success into a full ride scholarship at Rice – back in the good old days of the Southwest Conference. The eldest moved on to coach football, and the passion for the sport permeates every aspect of my day to day life.
I live for football season – from the time spent travelling to Austin and College Station to see my brother play as a young child, to playing most of my entire youth and having Cowboys season tickets in perpetuity, then on to a passion for watching Penn take on Harvard and Yale for the yearly Ivy crown. That’s how passionate I am about football – I voluntarily watch my alma mater (Go Quakers!) play Ivy League football… it’s definitely not the Big XII or the SEC with regards to quality.
I’ve been exposed to an insane amount of the culture of the sport, from all over the place. No, I’m not a coach, and no, it isn’t my career… so take my words with a grain of salt, but please don’t completely dismiss them. I’m not attempting to vilify the sport or anyone particularly involved in it (with exception of maybe Richie Incognito and the Dolphins right now). I love it. I really do. I hope the sport survives the next 50 years, and in a much more professional and safe context.
However, so many of the problems start early and persist throughout the entire life spectrum of individuals’ involvement with the game. I’ve seen sentiments that Martin is soft for complaining, and he needs to man up. I’ve seen coaches grab players by the face mask and throw them back into plays as a means of discipline and control. Ten years old or thirty – playing football is synonymous with maintaining an aura of toughness. If you can’t grit it out, make the hard hit, put your nose to the grind, and battle – well, football isn’t supposed to be for you.
That’s where I think we have the problem, though… this complete inability to separate mental toughness from physical toughness. Mental toughness can quite easily lead to physical toughness, but physical toughness is very rarely an accurate barometer of someone’s ability to be mentally tough. Ultimately, as a football player, the mental toughness takes precedence, and should be the aspect of a player most focused on. Some of the fiercest men and women in history have been those who lead and garner strength through the silence of sheer will. The best football players of all time were driven by an internal, mental ambition that no amount of physical prodding or faux-toughness would have diminished or strengthened.
Strength comes from within. Power comes from within. Success comes from within. Nothing associated with typical jock mentality (as I roughly define it in this entry) serves the purpose of pushing that positive mental toughness that can make a person stronger in anything in life, much less football. Calling a biracial player an insensitive word doesn’t make a player stronger. Forcing rookies to pay large bills and subjecting them to childish hazing doesn’t make a player stronger. Forcing an eight year old to run full speed and deal with violent hits by using intimidation such as shouting and telling him to man up or physically punishing them doesn’t make a player stronger. All of these things are disgusting.
Be it an extension of the aggressor’s insecurities or an instilled sense of “I had to deal with it, so do you” – I don’t know, I’m not Freud, nor am I attempting to psychoanalyze. You don’t have to be a psychologist to observe the jaded culture of the sport in its current form, though.
We’ll see how the NFL deals with this latest crisis, and see if any significant progress is made on the physical or mental health aspects of these two major issues. For anyone who hasn’t seen Frontline’s “League of Denial” regarding the systemic failures of the NFL to objectively protect its players and the subsequent lawsuits and settlements, you really should watch. I don’t have much faith in the parent league of the sport to control its development, though.
The NFL is a large business, with a lot of revenue to protect. I understand that – and I’m not calling on the NFL to necessarily be the lead dog in controlling these problems with its sport. I hope that it will, but I can’t pretend to be so righteous to have the audacity to want a multi-billion dollar company to change because of my concerns. In the end, the NFL is going to protect its establishment, and it is up to the purview of Roger Goodell and the executives within the league to decide to what length it determines who its stakeholders are. Does that stop with the league or with the sport as a whole? Who knows…
The responsibility for the culture change ultimately needs to fall on the youth leagues and parents who are placing their kids into the sport. A refusal to accept this fake and negatively aggressive mentality is the only thing that will stem the behavior. Stop reinforcing that hazing and this superficial, mentally-weak perceived “toughness” is an acceptable course of action for involvement in the sport, and the problem will solve itself.
Do not let any simpleton fool you into thinking that the sport can’t survive without that childish mentality of “toughness.” Men and women have died on this earth in combat with a lesser sense of necessary toughness. Men and women have steered their families through little food, little support, and bad times without this false sense of bravado. Every day, people on this earth face decisions that make the required “grit” of football pale in comparison to the struggles of life for so many on this earth. The perpetrators of this childish football mentality need to get over their own arrogance and remember that in the end, they are playing a game… not a life-determining series of decisions… a game.