Confronting Race, Head On

November 8, 2013 by Robert Klemko

From now until the opening of training camps, The MMQB will run a series of our Greatest Hits from the site’s first year. From November, Robert Klemko on the role race played in the Miami Dolphins locker room scandal…

Note from The MMQB’s editor-in-chief, Peter King:

Please be forewarned that the following story contains provocative language that some may find offensive. The incident involving Dolphins players Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin has prompted an examination by people inside and outside of football on race relations in the locker room. Our Robert Klemko, who has been on the scene in Miami this week, writes about race and this story. We at the site had to decide whether to use the terms this story has brought to the fore: namely “nigger” and “half-nigger.” In normal reporting, we would not spell out such offensive words, but because of Klemko’s subject matter we decided to use them in full, feeling it would be distracting or confusing to do otherwise, and that an honest discussion requires that we talk about these terms in the open. I apologize in advance to those who are offended by their use. To comment, please send an email to talkback@themmqb.com.

MIAMI — As with so many people, as soon as I read the voicemail transcript that ignited the public saga of the Miami Dolphins and bullying, I was taken aback by the prospect of veteran guard Richie Incognito calling second-year tackle Jonathan Martin a half-nigger. This is hate speech, I thought, and surely it was a one-time thing. It was hard to believe that a white man calling a black man a nigger could be acceptable practice in an NFL locker room that is overwhelmingly black.

In the process of covering the larger story, I traveled to Florida and persuaded retired former Dolphins lineman Lydon Murtha to write his first-person account of the relationship between Incognito and Martin, and he told me something shocking: After only several months of knowing one another, Murtha had heard Incognito call Martin the same thing to his face during position meetings, and Martin laughed. And that voicemail? Teammate Brian Hartline told reporters that Martin had played it for the locker room to hear and again laughed.

I called people I trust within the NFL community (not Martin’s agents) who’d had dealings with the young man. And they said Incognito had left voicemails calling Martin a nigger previous to the infamous one released this month, and whether it was said in anger or jest, it had troubled Martin, but he didn’t know what to do.

I texted several black current and former NFL players I know, and asked them, what would you do? The reaction was unanimous: I can’t even imagine it happening. I texted with two veteran coaches who said they had never seen such a thing in the NFL.

“It’s not common at all,” an AFC coach said. “You know when people are joking, but the black players I know would not appreciate anybody joking with them like that.”

jonathan-martin-dolphins-line
The Dolphins offensive line, minus Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, practicing this week. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Retired Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo had a story that seemed related, if only tangentially. At one point last season, Ravens players were listening to Yung Joc’s “It’s Goin’ Down” in the locker room. A white player recited a lyric with the word “nigga.” Ayanbadejo says a “fun debate” ensued. Was it okay for him to recite the word in a lyric? There’s a fine line, Ayanbadejo says. Like it or not, a large number of African-Americans in the league find the word’s use acceptable among themselves, though not among white players at large. There were white men on the team who were permitted to use the word as a term of endearment (as in, What’s up, my nigga?) because of the conditions of their youth. Through underprivileged childhoods, some had built up an amount of credibility. They weren’t quite “honorary black guys,” as Incognito has been described by a former Dolphins teammate, but they were close.

“If you’re from the hood and you grew up with black guys, then you can get away with saying it as a term of endearment,” Ayanbadejo says. “You can say, ‘my nigga.’ ”

Yet the idea that a white player would actually call somebody a nigger in anger or jest was utterly unfathomable.

“That wouldn’t fly,” Ayanbadejo said.

The line between my nigga and you nigger was clearly defined. Incognito seemed to be somewhat in congruence with the spirit of this unofficial race-relations policy when, as seen in a video released by TMZ, he stood drunken and shirtless at a bar and referred to black teammate Mike Pouncey as “Mike Pouncey. Nigga!” But in calling Martin a half-nigger, Incognito had obliterated the line. Simultaneously, Martin was being bullied for being black, and not black enough. Plus, Incognito did this in front of people.

* * *

So how did this happen? How did it become okay for a black player to be the subject of even one instance of hate speech in one locker room, while, from what I could gather, it was unthinkable in eight other organizations?

“That’s a big question,” said Kordell Stewart, the former Steeler quarterback, who is black. “I have never heard anything like that before in my life. For that to happen, all I can say is the brothers on that team have lost their minds, to allow it.”

There is no leadership,” Kordell Stewart says of the Dolphins’ locker room. “It takes strong men, invested enough to say, ‘No, that’s not happening.’

 Stewart went on to explain that the word “nigger” and its friendlier variation were not words uttered by white teammates, and black players who used them were careful not to do so around white people, so as to avoid giving the impression that it was acceptable common speech. Clearly, things changed at some point in the eight years since Stewart’s retirement.

“We just didn’t say it around everybody,” Stewart said. “Incognito has obviously been around black men who have allowed him to say it if he wants to. It tells you how their locker room is, and that’s why their team struggles because there is no leadership. It takes strong men, invested enough to say, ‘No, that’s not happening.’ ”

Stewart made it clear that a locker-room leader in any locker room, regardless of the black-white composition of the team, could be white; he could be black. The problem, Stewart said, is that Incognito is the alpha male in the locker room. The ideal leader is principled, even-tempered and respectful because he dictates the social rules. And Incognito is none of those things.

“He’s reckless, plain and simple,’’ said Stewart. “People don’t question him because he’s domineering and a Pro Bowler, and a lot of the young guys on the team are afraid of that. What are you gonna do? Beat him up? Jump him?

“If somebody like Derrick Brooks or Warren Sapp was in there, he would never say that.”

The AFC coach agreed: “It’s a total lack of respect and leadership.”

After spending two days in the Miami locker room, I had yet to find a Derrick Brooks or a Warren Sapp in the bunch. They defended Incognito as a good teammate, and suggested Martin was the outsider. Asked if it was okay for a white person to say “nigger,” rookie defensive end Dion Jordan said he didn’t believe it was an acceptable word for anyone to say.

So would he step up and object if he heard a player say it?

“Well that’s between the player and whoever he’s talking to,” Jordan said.

* * *

Listening to Jordan, I recalled two of the several dozen times I’ve personally been called a “nigger,” and I came to understand the crux of the race problem in Miami.

I am mixed, a term which in its modern application applies more accurately to me than Martin, whose parents are both black, or mixed, or however they choose to identify. My father is Ukrainian-American and my mother is African-American, and I’ve been called a “nigger” and a “half-nigger” and other related slurs in jest and in anger by drunk and sober people alike. The second time it ever happened I was 16. I had interrupted a conversation between two of my white high school football teammates before practice.

One fired back at me, “We were talking here, you f—ing mulatto.”

A mulatto, in case you’re blissfully ignorant of the slur, was once the label for children born from the rape of African slaves by their white masters.

I didn’t know what to do. I was angry and I saw this as a dangerous precedent. I thought if this guy can just call me a mulatto and there are no immediate consequences, it opens the door for anybody to call me that. They’ll drop the word in jest and say, We’re just joking. Why are you mad, now? Then I remembered the last time somebody called me a “half-nigger:” three years before when I was a diminutive freshman and the subject of bullying by football seniors. One day I told the star offensive player on the team, who was black, that one white senior had called me a “half-nigger.” And just like that, it stopped.

I reasoned three years later that I didn’t want our team to be the kind of group that preyed on each other emotionally on the basis of race. I would have to do something in that moment to make this insult an anomaly. I probably didn’t even have to hurt him; I could have cussed him out, or battered him in practice, but in those 60 seconds of contemplation I realized my teammate would never have used a slur against me if he had considered me blacker. He felt that my light skin and white dad gave him some kind of pass. I saw red.

Maybe Martin was truly above it all, and he took the wisest course of action and walked away, exposing the NFL warrior ethos for all of its self-perpetuating ugliness.

As we walked to practice, I walked in front of him and pushed him, so he knew he was in a fight, and then I threw haymakers at his face with both fists. There was blood everywhere: My white pants, his face, my hands. It was pooling on the pavement bordering our practice field as he dropped to his knees, hugging my leg. That’s when I stopped.

Would I do the same thing today if, for instance, a colleague called me a mulatto in anger? Probably not. I’d go to jail, and it just doesn’t seem like a reasonable way to solve conflicts anymore. But Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito play in the NFL, where,  right or wrong, an acceptable level of violence outside of the lines is often seen as a necessary display of passion. Essential, even. Fights get covered up by teams when they happen in private and explained as “competitive fire” when they happen publicly. Operating in this warped moral bubble, why didn’t Martin stand up for himself? Why didn’t he fight, as the team’s general manager, Jeff Ireland, reportedly suggested to Martin’s agent? Maybe he was afraid to face Incognito, the stronger man more prone to violence. Or maybe he was truly above it all, and he took the wisest course of action and walked away, exposing the NFL warrior ethos for all of its self-perpetuating ugliness in an admirable move which, admittedly, I would be incapable of.

But Martin should have never had to walk away. He was a Miami Dolphin. He is, by most accounts, quiet and guarded with his emotions. He is light-skinned, his parents are Harvard-educated, and he might seem nothing like most of the black guys in the locker room. Said Roman Oben, who played 12 seasons in the NFL as an offensive lineman, “If you’re like Martin, and you’re black and you have money and an education and can go and make $200,000 not playing football, you’re going to be more scrutinized than everybody else. That’s the unfortunate truth. And without the leaders around who would step in, you’re going to be expected to stand up for yourself.”

Martin was still a Miami Dolphin, though. And there were other Miami Dolphins, black and white, who knew that Richie Incognito was so comfortable with harassing this man, he crossed a racial line clearly defined across the NFL. And yet they did nothing.

Maybe Martin was on his own because they all questioned his desire, or his blackness, or something else. Or maybe they just didn’t care enough about the Miami Dolphins.