Richie Incognito and NFL Kulturkampf


(Jonathan Martin)

I agree with Dave Zirin, who says it’s hard to take at face value some of the vehement outrage now being expressed by the football commentariat about Richie Incognito. As recently as 72 hours ago, before Incognito’s disgusting voicemail to teammate Jonathan Martin was revealed, lots of commentators were hedging their bets. Zirin notes that “according to Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter, the view off the record of every NFL personnel man he spoke with was, “’Instead of being a man and confronting him, Martin acted like a coward and told like a kid.’”

Now that Incognito’s malevolence has been exposed (including calling the bi-racial Martin a “half-ni–er”), no one outside of the Rush Limbaughs of the world wants to defend him. But this sickening affair does highlight an interesting cultural shift in football. On one level, this shift is the product of pure economic interest. The NFL has, at least for now, dodged a multi-billion dollar bullet thanks to the recent legal settlement that allowed it to evade massive liability for having worked to obscure the pervasive adverse health effects caused by playing football. And determined not to be so exposed again, the NFL has undertaken quite far-reaching changes in rules and medical procedures to try to mitigate the long-term effects on its players of repeated head injuries. Those rules changes, combined with a clear fan appetite for high-octane offenses and the underrated influence of fantasy football, premised on the achievements of superstar offensive players, have transformed the game. The slow, grind it out, head smashing ethos is itself being stymied (which is not to say that all of the practices associated with that ethos are gone). In its place is a high speed, high precision game, in which offenses prefer to attack open spaces rather than big piles of immovable men. It’s still a violent and dangerous game – a “collision sport” as Malcolm Gladwell has said – but the attitude of the game has changed.

This morning on Mike and Mike there was an interesting airing of that shift and the remnants of the old ways. Early on, Mike Greenberg read some excerpts from a piece by Tim Keown.

Keown’s opening grafs:

Beneath the disgusting details of threats and taunts and racism lies an uncomfortable truth: The NFL needs Richie Incognito more than it needs Jonathan Martin.

Coaches love players like Incognito. They look at guys like Martin, known as soft-spoken and thoughtful while at Stanford, with skepticism. Does he have the killer instinct? Does he care enough? Those questions don’t apply to Incognito. Coaches might not want to see him after hours, but they love him on the field. He’s indispensable, a tone-setter, the guy who announces your team’s presence with a crazed, through-the-whistle style that is prized at every level.

Coaches chuckle among themselves: He might be a horrible human being, but he’s our horrible human being. Sociopathic behavior from players at certain positions is not only tolerated but cherished. As long as it stays out of the headlines and the police blotters — in other words, as long as it’s kept in-house — it provides the kind of toughness you need to compete.

Yes, this is America’s game.

Keown, to be clear, wasn’t defending Incognito, or the Dolphins. He was only identifying what he regards as an enduring reality about football. Later in the morning, Greenberg brought up Keown’s piece with legendary former NFL executive Bill Polian, who took umbrage with Keown’s perspective. Polian insisted that the premise of Keown’s piece was 100% wrong.

Here’s how Polian described the reality of football to Mike and Mike:

“It is not a street fight. It is an athletic contest between two teams. It’s physical. It’s combative. It requires toughness, but it also requires mental acuity, the ability to process information and most of all, the ability to be disciplined under intense pressure. That’s the antithesis of Richie Incognito’s career is. So, the premise is completely wrong. We don’t prize people like that.”

In fact, Polian noted, his front office passed on Incognito in the 2005 draft because of his character issues (elsewhere, Dungy has said that the Colts labeled Incognito DNDC – do not draft because of character). . And Polian explained that the Colts’ organization, and coaches like Marv Levy and Tony Dungy simply would not tolerate such behavior. Furthermore, he contended, 99% of players were men of character, who gave back to the community and followed the rules. Quite cogently, Greenberg responded that Marv Levy and Tony Dungy – both very cerebral and soft-spoken men – were perhaps atypical among football people and that, in fact, there are plenty of guys on NFL rosters who have been guilty of spousal abuse and other crimes. Polian responded that guys like Incognito don’t win you football games – they cost you games – because they take stupid penalties and otherwise undermine what you are trying to accomplish.

I don’t know whether that is true. I don’t know, for example, whether he’s been whistled for more penalties than other guys at his position. Incognito was a pro bowler last season and, though he’s had numerous issues off the field and is widely hated by opponents, hasn’t had much trouble finding work (that appears likely to change now).

There is some conflation of issues going on here. One is that Bill Polian clearly approached talent evaluation and roster construction in a particular way. The Peyton Manning era Colts, in particular, had a reputation as a cerebral team that prized finesse over brute force. That doesn’t mean that guys who played on that team all were made of exemplary moral fiber off the field. A particular style of play and good citizenship don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

But what is becoming increasingly clear is that the world is changing, and the King of Sports – Gregg Easterbrook’s term for American football – is desperately trying to keep up. There is far more exposure of players’ off field problems, including post-retirement, than there has been before. Fewer parents are going to let their sons play football knowing what they now know, unless institutional football can show it takes player safety extremely seriously. Being a loud-mouthed asshole prone to racial and other slurs is also less acceptable in 2013 than it has been before. This isn’t a matter of the endlessly misused term “political correctness.” This is an evolving societal norm with obvious economic implications. Incognito’s behavior is, in light of the standards of today, simply bad for business, especially for a league that is trying to broaden its customer base by increasingly trying to appeal to women and by appealing to younger generations with different sensibilities than the typical football fan of yore.

The controversy over Washington’s name is part and parcel of this larger shift. It’s no longer acceptable to a significant portion of the public to insist that a team name is OK just because no one used to complain about it.

Incognito, in this context, is a throw back, in the worst sense. He’s on the wrong side of a cultural shift and is learning the hard way that, during such times, the rules can change fast. Too bad for him.


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