Richie Incognito's Path to Redemption Has Been Paved by Middle Schoolers

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Richie Incognito's Path to Redemption Has Been Paved by Middle Schoolers
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Richie Incognito and his bulky frame have taken shelter from a storm of controversy, but he would do better to walk a difficult path paved by a bunch of pint-sized, big-hearted middle schoolers.

This is a story of dueling rites of passage.

The first is that now well-publicized and hotly debated ritual of NFL hazing, dramatized most disturbingly by the vitriolic (and racist) voice mails that Incognito allegedly left for his then Miami Dolphins teammate Jonathan Martin.

ESPN.com has the rundown of those messages.

Many of us who have played sports at some competitive level beyond elementary school have experienced hazing in one form or another. My rookie high school basketball year included a sudden swarming of older players who grabbed various portions of my underwear and yanked it until it snapped; they then ceremoniously tied it around my neck.

Once I caught my breath, I also breathed a sigh of relief. Sure, this was a very embarrassing, very public moment at a high school dance, but I had heard horror stories about athletic initiations that made my brush with death-by-undergarment seem decidedly tame.

And mine didn't leave any psychological scars. (I am, after all, telling it to anonymous Internet readers.)

Martin's reported ordeal, by contrast, would have sent me into a psychological tailspin; it did enough damage to Martin that he left the Dolphins (at least temporarily).

Rites of passage are (ironically) bridges of inclusion: Forcing someone to undergo travail before being fully incorporated into an elite group is a reminder of both the privilege of achieving such membership, on the one hand, and the continual acts of courage that will be required to contribute to that group, on the other.

And in that way such ritualized hardships are meant to transform potentially fearful, isolated hearts into a collective of adamantine wills.

Maybe that's why Incognito is getting such wide-ranging defense from NFL colleagues, as reported by Gary Mihoces of USA Today Sports.

But there is a different rite of passage emerging in football circles that is so much more powerful, so much more magnetic in its ability to create solidarity and camaraderie.

Sending a player with Down syndrome, autism or some other disability onto an athletic field, from which they would normally be excluded, has now taken on the consistently meaningful pattern of a ritual.

Normally the retelling of such rituals includes footage of that player being assisted in scoring a touchdown and the tearful words of gratitude from the boy's parents.

The following video has that, but it also provides a striking glimpse into the transformational power of this ritual on a boy without a disability (that part beings at 2:33).

Here you have a ritual recipe for making a real man: tears, empathy and the hard-fought, bracing clarity that helps people celebrate not only someone's success, but their humanity.

Of course, fans of the television show Friday Night Lights are familiar with a more pithy refrain of those triumphant qualities: "Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose!"

If Incognito finds redemption in this situation, it will likely involve jettisoning a puny script of what it means to be a tough guy. Establishing a new, more expansive pattern of genuine concern for the dignity of all players and people would take significant courage.

The NFL needs to find a rite of passage for that. Rituals have helped create this mess. Maybe they will help clean it up as well.

 

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