It’s certainly not a phenomenon unique to football, but the recent revelation surrounding the alleged boorish behavior of Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito reminds us that hazing, bullying and tacitly condoned off-the-field violence are a persistent part of professional athletics.
To be sure, the bullying, harassment and other acts of derision that Incognito is alleged to have committed against now-former teammate Jonathon Martin can be found in many other venues. The college Greek system often comes under fire for its treatment of pledges. The armed forces have many informal, but ensconced admission rituals.
Even college bands have garnered increased scrutiny for their maltreatment of members.
While these are not an exclusively male rituals, they tend to be more common in male-dominated institutions. In many respects, the hazing and ugliness that prompted changes in the Miami Dolphins go to the heart of what it is to be a man in American culture.
University of Maryland Professor Elizabeth Allen, an expert in the study of hazing, places these rituals in the context of asserting one’s masculinity. Allen observes that culturally constructed notions of what it means to be a “real man” place an emphasis on physical and mental toughness, obedience to superiors and the value of force as a means of accountability.
These beliefs, combined with desires by heterosexual men to demonstrate that they do not possess qualities associated with gay men (e.g., vulnerability, emotionality, nurturance), contribute to the perpetuation of hazing. In some instances the desire to be seen as appropriately masculine even drives new recruits to request they be hazed.
Almost all social groups have some kind of assimilation rituals. Even if it’s just assenting to the fact that the guys in the office don’t wear neckties on Fridays, groups usually devise little “tests” of a member’s commitment to the collective. It’s wrong to expect that professional athletics — especially football — would be any different.
Of course the Incognito-Martin narrative isn’t just about one brute taunting another. It is also a complex story of race and class. Martin, who is African-American, came from a household where both parents graduated from Harvard. He was a classics major at Stanford. Had he gone to Harvard, he would have been the first fourth generation black graduate.
Incognito who is white, bounced from school to school, constantly being racked by a combination of academic underachievement and disciplinary problems. Incognito, a multi-millionaire, also makes several times Martin’s salary.
These forces combined reinforce one of the dominant themes of traditional masculinity: Physical toughness and the willingness to endure torture equate to being a real man. Whereas, intellect and an ability to respond to taunts using something other than fists paint you as weak and inferior.
Detractors will likely point out that this is professional football, not a debate club. It is physical. It is tough. It is hard on the players. Sure. No one disputes any of those things, but there’s a very steep and slippery slope if we excuse this kind of ugly behavior.
By partitioning off this one area of culture and saying ‘OK, in this one instance you can treat each other like animals. You can be hurtful. You can be racist. You can deny another person his humanity — just as long as it makes for more compelling game play,’ we open the door for asking where else these rules might apply.
If we’re willing to let professional athletes act like animals, then should we be surprised when these same behaviors are modeled by our own children? We hold athletes up as heroes even when their behavior is hardly heroic. Nobody should buy tickets to that game.