Richie Incognito, Michael Sam, and the Future of the NFL Locker Room
In the wake of gridiron prospect Michael Sam coming out of the closet last Sunday, the defensive end’s journalistic well-wishers have ridiculed the notion that homosexuality wouldn’t be welcomed within NFL locker rooms. Time’s Eric Dodds, for instance, accused those questioning whether Sam’s presence would divide and distract a locker room of harboring “thinly-veiled bigotry.” And Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News based an article on the premise that “an NFL locker room is more enlightened than most people realize.”
But after reading the Wells Report on the Incognito-Martin bullying scandal, how can anyone maintain such ignorance about the league’s enlightenment?
“Player A was a Dolphins offensive lineman,” Ted Wells’s report notes of an anonymous player tormented by fellow Dolphins offensive linemen. “Like Martin, he is quiet and unassuming. During his time with the team, [Richie] Incognito, [John] Jerry and [Mike] Pouncey frequently taunted Player A with homophobic insults. He often was called a ‘fag’ or a ‘faggot’ in a demeaning tone. Incognito reportedly accused him of ‘sucking d---’ and ‘pissing while sitting down’ and asked him ‘where’s your boyfriend?’ Incognito acknowledged that Player A, although not actually believed to be gay, was spoken to in this manner repeatedly and persistently—he got it ‘every day from everybody, high frequency.’”
They’re called offensive linemen for a reason.
Where were the adults? A coach presented the tormented player with a male blow-up doll for Christmas after passing out female versions of the sex toy to the other offensive linemen. Monkey see, monkey do.
The Lord of the Flies atmosphere in Miami, one hopes, is an NFL outlier. Nevertheless, the Wells Report provides a peephole into the off-field sancturary. It’s not a pretty picture. But neither are the trenches where Incognito, Martin, Pouncey, and company compete.
Rather than acknowledge the ugliness, scribes project their fantasies upon the locker room. The most fantastical of which was expressed by a Chicago Tribune headline: “Sam will force NFL locker rooms to grow up.” In other words, fifty-two personalities will adjust to the rookie in the room rather than the rookie in the room adjusting to the fifty-two personalities. Is that the way teams, in any sport, work?
Michael Sam’s enthusiasts are passionate about homosexuality. They aren’t knowledgeable about sports, which, at least when a collective enterprise, value conformism over individuality. Their prescription for what ails NFL locker rooms—and the Wells Report demonstrates that the Dolphins locker room, at least, could use a strong dose of medicine—will breed resentment, not respect. Jeb Lund of Sports on Earth writes that “it doesn’t have to be like that. Michael Sam can be accepted on day one. In part, because we can reason against specious arguments that portray him as a threat. And in part because the nature of the NFL means that those in charge can declare that he will be accepted.” Will such a top-down edict make players more likely to embrace Michael Sam or despise him?
Sam’s approach—shut up and train after making the announcement—seems much more likely to win esteem than the camera chasing of his handlers. Letting his play speak for him seemed to work well in the SEC. Why not give that a try in the NFL? As Jonathan Martin discovered in a much-too harsh manner, young players earn the respect of veterans. It’s just not automatic on day one of training camp. In fact, it’s automatic that young players will be disrespected and demeaned from day one of training camp until they earn the regard of their peers. That may not be ideal. But the people forcing their ideals on the NFL, like so many idealists, generally don’t have any idea.
Despite Sam making his announcement just five days before the release of the Wells Report, the 148-page document directly ties in L’affaire Incognito with the openly-gay player. Given the abusive anti-gay language peppering the players’ texts and their talk, it would be hard for Ted Wells and colleagues to have ignored it. “Several NFL players have been vocal in promoting acceptance and integration of gay players into the league,” the Wells Report points out, “and we believe that the NFL as an organization is committed to creating a safe environment in which a player can feel comfortable being open about his sexual orientation. With the recent announcement by Michael Sam, a defensive lineman from the University of Missouri who is expected to be selected in the 2014 NFL draft, that he is gay, it is even more urgent that a tolerant atmosphere exist throughout the league. The frequent use of homophobic insults undermines this goal.”
Translation? Prepare for sensitivity training, media coaching, and more harassing rules about workplace harassment. The Canadian Football League has already fined two players for reacting negatively on Twitter to Sam’s announcement. Who breeds tolerance through intolerance? Though the NFL hasn’t garnished any wages for criticism of homosexuality, the $10 billion behemoth clearly seeks to clean up its image in the wake of a Wells Report made necessary by a “loud, aggressive and boisterous” player “with little sense of social boundaries.” Ironically, it’s not Michael Sam, but Richie Incognito, who may serve as the catalyst for a kinder, gentler NFL.
But legislating away locker-room culture may prove even trickier than ridding the game of concussions. Guys like Richie Incognito don’t live to follow rules. They live to break them. One of the reasons a man-child transgresses social boundaries is to demonstrate that he is man and not child, the boss of himself freed from convention and constraints. The more we make race, gender, and sexuality forbidden subjects, the more the Richie Incognitos of the world will hector a Japanese trainer on Pearl Harbor Day while wearing a rising-sun headband, incessantly comment on the sexual proclivities of his teammates’ sisters, and associate the word “faggot” with all that he dislikes. Some people don’t know how to behave. But heavy-handed lectures to them on proper conduct will serve as incitement to further misbehavior. Like the Dolphins anarchic locker room, NFL players will benefit from strong example and not preachy admonishment.
When we get over our “shocked, shocked” reaction to locker-room behavior occurring in, of all places, the locker room, and greet it with blank stares that drain boorishness of its fuel, the less it will arise. Nothing’s more shocking to people who love to shock than bored expressions.
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game (Regnery, 2103), edits Breitbart Sports. He discusses the Incognito-Martin scandal, and Michael Sam, on CNN’s Reliable Sources, which airs at 11 a.m. Eastern this Sunday.