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The End of Expectations

With apologies to non sports fans, allow me to introduce you to the dumbest controversy to hit America since the furor over whether John Bolton once put his hands on his hips while talking to a subordinate. I am talking, of course, about the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito Miami Dolphins controversy.

Details at this point are still somewhat sketchy, but the basic outlines of the story are this: Incognito is alleged to have engaged in the following egregious and unconscionable behaviors towards Martin:

  • Sent him text messages which included racial slurs and questioned his manhood; 
  • Left at least one voicemail which contained the above, and could (in a very strained reading of events) have been interpreted as a threat (although one assumes Incognito did not actually intend to defacate in Martin’s mouth, I am trying to give the benefit of the doubt here); and
  • Somehow, through means unknown, intimidated Martin into paying $15,000 towards a team building event in Las Vegas, which he ultimately did not feel comfortable attending (it is intimated that multi-year veterans paid less for this trip).

It is assumed that Martin’s representatives, who have leaked all this information to the press, have no more bullets left to fire and that the most damaging revelations yet have already been leaked. It has been intimated but not yet confirmed that Incognito engaged in this course of action at the instigation of the Dolphins coaching staff as an attempt to “toughen Martin up.” Martin’s response was to depart the team immediately before a game, and at some point he apparently checked himself into a hospital due to emotional distress, and recently departed the team and flew back to California in the tow of his parents.

The media reaction to this series of events could not be both more predictable and also more at odds with the perception of this story by ordinary Americans (to say nothing of other football players). The hysterical squealing and finger wagging at the entire Dolphins organization over an alleged “bullying” story against a 24 year old, 300+ pound professional athlete is, to say the least, indicative of an insular worldview, and at the worst, a symptom of a rot that is destroying America at its core.

A fairly representative sample of the screeching is this screed by Brian Phillips at Grantland. Grantland, I should add, is one of the few sports websites I can tolerate these days, and is highly recommended reading in general terms – which is what makes this hot, fatuous mess even more jarring for appearing there. Phillips’ piece is long, poorly written, and infantile, by which I take it to mean that he is attempting to parody what he perceives as the macho stupidity of anyone who points out that perhaps Martin may have overreacted a tad. Insofar as his article has a point, it’s buried about two thirds of the way through the article:

Or look at it this way: Say Jonathan Martin had three children, two boys and a girl. Say the youngest was 2 months old and the oldest was 3 years old and they all died in a fire. Would you call him weak for missing some games over this? No, because you would understand that he was in unbearable pain, that he was literally crazy with hurt, and you would want to support him because, to your mind, the pain would have a valid cause. But what makes a badly suffering person incapable of functioning isn’t the validity of the cause, it’s the extremity of the pain. And sometimes — because brains break! — it’s possible to feel as if your children had burned to death for no obvious reason at all. The ceiling is screaming, every pore in your skin hurts, the view in the window hurts, the idea of getting off the couch to close the curtains hurts, thinking five minutes into the future makes you feel like you’re coming apart at the atomic level. You need help when this happens. Yeah, even if it means that the hardest men on the planet — Twitter users — lose respect for you.

Let me see if I can take this apart for a bit and explain why this exact line of thinking is the problem, not the solution. I am not here to talk about “football culture,” either to attack or defend it. I’ve never played organized football, at any level, so I can’t comment on that. Nor am I here to defend what Incognito said or say it makes sense within the context of some sort of “tough love” program to mold Martin. Having read the transcripts of the voicemail and texts, I’d have never said those things even in jest. Nor am I here to defend some sort of macho ideal of what a football player should be.

The issue, which Phillips and so many media yakking heads continually gloss over, is whether Martin’s reaction, however genuine, was appropriate to the stimulus that prompted it, given what we as a society expect from adults of Martin’s age. Phillips and others cannot see to this point – to this class of person (which tends to be liberal), there is no such thing as how a person ought to feel, there is only how they do feel. And if how they feel is genuine, however irrational, then it needs to be “honored” and coddled.

A society cannot long survive in the complete absence of expectations about behavior in response to stimuli. If no one can ever say, “Hey man, you need to throttle it back, as a grown adult you should be able to handle this,” without themselves being the bad guy in the situation, we may as well all pack it up and go home. We had a nice run, America, time to let someone else have a try.

And it’s perfectly appropriate to say, as New York Giants offensive lineman Antrel Rolle did, that Incognito’s actions were deplorable, while at the same time recognizing that as an adult, people are always going to try to push your boundaries, and your reaction to that can’t always be to capitulate and surrender. And in fact, when we see someone’s reaction that seems so out of bounds in terms of proportion to the stimuli that caused it, it’s definitely probative as to whether we believe the genuineness of the reaction, especially when contradictory evidence continues to surface indicating that Martin may not have been as upset about the text messages as he is now claiming at the time he received him, and given that Martin’s play on the field was roundly criticized before this incident ever occurred.

And yes, we should all be glad that if Martin was in the middle of a breakdown, he went to the hospital rather than getting a gun and shooting up the Dolphins’ locker room, as some have suggested. But does that mean that we can under no circumstances say, “Great, Jonathan, but maybe next time let’s work on some coping skills so you don’t have to go to the hospital next time you get a mean text message?” While we are busy burying the Dolphins’ organization for failure of oversight (over what two fully grown adults were doing over the privacy of a cell phone connection), can we at least ask whether Martin’s family, college, and high school coaches ought to have better prepared him to handle himself when someone upset him?

To Brian Phillips and so many others in the sports media, the answer is a resounding “no.” For the sake of America, I hope the answer on main street where everyday people live continues to be yes, in spite of the tsking we will undoubtedly take from our betters on the TV screen. Otherwise, every man for himself, straight to the breakdown lane.

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