What you have to understand about race and an NFL locker room, is that an NFL locker room, when it comes to race, is vastly superior to the rest of society.
"I've had more honest race conversations in an NFL locker room than anywhere else," said veteran Arizona Cardinals kicker Jay Feely, who is white. "The best part about being in the NFL is getting to know people of other races."
"The big thing in an NFL locker room is guys really do honestly try to improve race relations," said former NFL linebacker Corey Miller, who is black. "We were always talking about race. It always came up. We wanted to understand."
In society, there are barriers, both figurative and literal. America isn't a melting pot; it's a boiling pot. Many people live segregated lives. Our churches, our homes, our schools.
But in the NFL, there is genuine mix. There is nothing like it in sports. There are few places like it anywhere. This mix of race and friendship, coalesced by surviving the violence of football, leads to a type of openness that exists in few other places.
NFL players talk constantly about race. In hot tubs, black and white players will openly discuss racial profiling. Between meetings, they will debate the racial politics of the Tea Party. In the cafeteria, they will talk about affirmative action.
Miller, who was married to a white woman, would be in the middle of discussions about interracial relationships. The conversations will be measured and responsible—the opposite of what happens outside of the locker room, on talk shows or on message boards.
Even in college football, there isn't the same racial openness. Feely remembers how when he played at Michigan, the cafeteria had groups of white players eating together in some parts of the room, and black players sitting together in other parts.
In the NFL, there rarely are racial pockets. Just pockets.
It's as these walls disintegrate that the issue of race in football really gets interesting, and a persistent question is answered. If it is true that Ritchie Incognito left a racist voicemail for Jonathan Martin, why would black Miami Dolphins players support Incognito?
The reason is because of the racial openness of the locker room. Whether you think the N-word should or should not be used, it is. In NFL locker rooms, rap music containing the word are blasted on radios. Black players call each other that word in front of white teammates.
"That word should never be used, as far as I'm concerned," said Feely. "But when black players use it, it becomes desensitized."
Then, because it's been desensitized, white players start to use it. Soon, white players are calling black players the N-word, and black players are calling white players the N-word. Or using other racial slurs for whites.
We saw this in Detroit where tight end Tony Scheffler, who is white, would say to Louis Delmas, who is black: "How's my n****?" And Delmas would say to Scheffler, "Hey, cracker."
This is what the openness of an NFL locker room brings. Things get so open, in some cases, that they get raw. The Dolphins case exposed this rawness to a world that lacks racial openness. From the outside, we see these dynamics, and are shocked.
There are, of course, other negatives to this type of openness that go beyond desensitizing the N-word. Black players who are well-spoken or highly educated are mocked or seen as soft by other black players. Only in a locker room is a good education or background seen as a negative.
Feely remembers being on a team with a highly educated black player. Some of the black players joked, in the same vein as Chappelle's Show, that if the team had a racial draft, the well-spoken black player would be picked first for the white team.
These are the positives, and perils, of total racial openness. But mostly positives.
Feely is one of the more intelligent and open-minded people I've ever met, and he credits a lot of his open attitudes about race to his NFL life. He says that only in the NFL could someone like him, a conservative and critic of some of President Obama's policies, become friends with someone like Ricky Williams.
Feely had signed with Miami as a free agent following Williams' suspension for marijuana use. The Dolphins were debating bringing Williams back. Feely was asked by a reporter what he thought, and he said he only wanted teammates who were committed to the team, not ones who quit on the team.
The quote got a lot of attention, but the Dolphins signed Williams nonetheless. Feely, being a standup dude, approached Williams at his locker. "I just want you to know. This is what I said," he told Williams, "This is why I said it. But you're my teammate now and I'll embrace you like any other."
Williams thanked Feely for his honesty, and after that moment, they became friends. That offseason, Williams invited Feely to Boston for a Celtics-Heat NBA conference finals game.
"The progression of friendship and enlightenment between a (conservative) white guy and a black guy with dreads doesn't happen anywhere but in a locker room."
An NFL locker room.
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