The NFL is barbaric.
It's unsophisticated, brutal, unrelenting, unkind and violent. However, in this country we love our beer cold and our football brutal.
In the wake of Jonathan Martin's departure from football and Richie Incognito's rise as sports villain, we have to ponder why we are even trying to stuff a square peg into a round hole.
With concussions, bounty scandals and hazing that is increasingly more harassment than friendly ribbing, there is a real question as to whether the NFL is the equivalent of a meathead pal who just doesn't get the tenets of modern society.
The crunch of a great hit and a woozy player stumbling off the field used to make us smile; a coach demanding the ultimate in violent hits placated our need to see men who care. And oh how wonderful it was to watch stupid haircuts and young players carry vets' gear off the field.
Time has a funny way of moving forward, so change is imminent.
You can dig in your figurative claws and cling to the "hard-nosed" sport, resisting the notion that anything less is somehow softer.
It's time to come up with a better excuse for primitive thinking and locker room antics than merely, "That's how things are done."
It's time to be better.
Incognito is now the name and face of a growing harassment scandal. NFL Network's Jeff Darlington first reported that the Miami Dolphins had suspended the lineman amid a growing controversy over hazing.
As we have seen and will touch upon later, players are sticking up for Incognito, essentially proclaiming this is just who this kidder is, and his way is just how things are done.
We won't go so far as to call hazing a time-honored tradition, but it's most certainly an accepted norm, much like the New Orleans Saints and the bounty scandal that cost Gregg Williams his job and head coach Sean Payton a year away from football.
NOLA.com has a nice and tidy timeline for the scandal that made fans question to what extent they wanted their coaches to encourage violence.
These were coaches trying to get the most from their players, asking that they actually work towards inflicting physical harm.
News that teams were out to collect heads would hardly make any player blush, but it caused outrage from fans outside football circles.
This is sort of a theme these days.
Concussions, CTE and Increasingly Visible Dangers
You would have to be pretty naive to look at football and ever think it was entirely safe. Even then, the cases of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and retired players facing the ill-effects of football careers began to seep out, ultimately leading to the league paying $765 million to settle a recent concussion lawsuit.
The problems of hard hits and life in the NFL leading to long-term mental issues are far from over, and it was covered extremely well in the recent Frontline documentary, League of Denial.
The documentary covering the rampant cases of CTE touches upon something we have known for years: Football is dangerous.
It's increasingly more evident that that danger extends to far more than physical injuries and lasts long after a player retires.
But at what point do players just accept the nearly inevitable?
It would be ridiculous to think any of you would sign up to work if you thought you might have severe brain damage later in life because of that decision, but we aren't dealing with a regular 9-to-5 job, are we?
We are the masses in the stands rooting the gladiators who roam the pit. They don't have the luxury of moving along with the times—if they do, it's with a plodding pace.
From pee wee football to high school and beyond, they are nudged, cajoled and motivated in a manner that has always been the norm, and so it's not at all surprising that we find ourselves here, pondering how a grown man could leave an NFL team after an emotional breakdown.
We can all be adult and admit Richie Incognito is neither the only player nor the first to ever chide a teammate in the locker room.
What's intriguing is the support Incognito is receiving from other players. The Palm Beach Post's Andrew Abramson touched upon that with the following tweets.
Source: “Pouncey and Incognito, they talk to each other that way — redneck, (n-word), it doesn’t bother the two of them. ...— Andrew Abramson (@AbramsonPBP) November 6, 2013
(source continued)... "they were trying to bring Jonathan in the circle.”— Andrew Abramson (@AbramsonPBP) November 6, 2013
Racially charged chatter is just boys being boys, or so the sentiment goes.
Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter took Dolphins teammates and coaches to task for not knowing or helping in the matter, via ESPN.
I played in three different decades: the 1980s, '90s and 2000s. I'm really disappointed in [Martin's] teammates, because I don't know how this guy can still be playing on a football team and they not find it out. I'm disappointed in the offensive players. I'm disappointed in Mike Pouncey...[Ryan] Tannehill, the quarterback, how can they not know? How can these guys not know? Joe Philbin as the head coach, the reason why coaches in this league are great is because they care about the players.
One wonders if many in the Dolphins organization didn't know, or just didn't care. After all, football players are gonna be football players.
New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle voiced his thoughts with WFAN on Tuesday, offering up the opinion of just another NFL player taking a look at the scandal from afar, via ESPN.
Was Richie Incognito wrong? Absolutely. But I think the other guy is just as much to blame as Richie, because he allowed it to happen.
At this level, you're a man. You're not a little boy. You're not a freshman in college. You're a man.
Insensitive considering some of the things Incognito allegedly did or said to Martin? Of course, Incognito did offer up threats and obscene remarks in a voice mail.
Hey, wassup, you half n—– piece of [expletive] . . . I saw you on Twitter, you been training ten weeks. [I want to] [expletive] in your [expletive] mouth. [I'm going to] slap your [expletive] mouth. [I'm going to] slap your real mother across the face (laughter). [Expletive] you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.
Ah, but they don't exactly hand out pamphlets on sensitivity when you sign your NFL contract, and fans aren't keeping fantasy stats on how sensitive a player is.
Rolle's sentiment is unfortunate, but it's completely and utterly expected.
It's also not entirely dissimilar from what quarterback Ryan Tannehill had to say, via Will Brinson.
"Both guys have their rights and wrongs" - Ryan Tannehill on Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) November 6, 2013
There is even the Palm Beach Post report from Andrew Abramson that cites a source who claims Incognito was asked by coaches to "toughen up" the soft Martin, giving us the fitting and obvious "code red" scenario from A Few Good Men.
You can almost hear Jack Nicholson shout, "You need me on that line; you want me on that line."
Former player and NFL analyst Mark Schlereth was on SVP & Russillo on Wednesday and really summed things up beautifully. "The most politically incorrect place on the face of a planet is in an NFL locker room."
He then goes on to tell a vivid and uncomfortable story about having kidney stones surgically removed and then leaving to play a game that same day, finishing with, "That's what you have to do to play in the National Football League." Schlereth continued, "You have to be that stupid."
Guys play with injuries and physical maladies we wouldn't dare head into work with, let alone maintain while playing a game.
But that gladiator mentality has a dark side.
Schlereth continues, "And there's this mentality in there; the worst thing you can be...you know what's worse than being racist in an NFL locker room? Being soft."
And so we have just the latest example of the league being reactive to things we on the outside just take for granted. Keith Olbermann took the team to task for just that, albeit extrapolating things to legal ends.
There's a very "Don't ask how the sausage is made" aspect behind all this. At some point, we have to admit that things just aren't the same in the locker room, dugout, clubhouse as they are in the commissary at your office.
When emotional breakdowns yield public outcry, when bigger, badder players hitting one another yields brain damage, the sport goes through a forced upheaval.
The league will continue to merely take the wrist slap and move on, changing when society catches a whiff of the objectionable and bothering to take the time to care.
CBS Sports' Will Brinson recently tweeted out this quote from coach Joe Philbin.
"If the review reveals anything that needs to be corrected, we will take all necessary measures to fix it" - Joe Philbin— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) November 6, 2013
That says everything about the NFL as we inch toward a more sophisticated future: We will fix what's broken, but someone needs to point out what it is that's broken.
There is a very real sense that lingering head injuries, behind-the-scenes berating among players and a brutish existence is just the price of doing business.
Well, it needs to stop, because it's stupid. The status quo is outdated and will have to evolve or work to its detriment with fans. And really, does our great and beloved sport have to be this dumb?
Along the way, there will be the obligatory scandals, controversies and Incognitos.
A safer, more sophisticated sport is eventually how the NFL will have to evolve, so it does no harm to demand that now. It's clear fans won't accept the old-school way of doing things forever, so we grab and tug at the beloved league, even as it kicks, screams and gives mea culpa pressers.
The NFL locker room will never be completely in sync with the rest of the world; it's its own microcosm that has to function on its own.
However, the idea that you can break someone down to build them back up, or chisel a machine from unrelenting harm, is a tenuous one.
Sometimes you are merely breaking someone down to break them down, and that's where the NFL needs to change.
There is no denying our love for the sport, but there is no reason to merely accept its darker side either.
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