Let me tell you a little something about myself.
Today, I am a fat, out-of-shape, and devoutly unathletic middle-aged man. But once, in my youth, I was a fat, out-of-shape, but modestly athletic teenager; and during that time, I played football (as a nose tackle for my high school team) and baseball (as a relief pitcher in both high school and college).
My experiences of the two sports were wildly different. As a baseball player, I was moderately successful; I was a lefty with a funky delivery and a handful of ‘trick’ pitches, which made me valuable for getting key late-inning outs provided the coach had the good sense to pull me before hitters could catch on to my syrup-slow arsenal of junk. My teams were also pretty good; in high school we were contenders if never winners, and in college, I played (albeit deep from the bench) for one of the best programs in the region. I was also largely accepted by my teammates, despite being overweight and bookish; relievers in general, and lefties in particular, have always been considered freaks, and most of the other players accepted my nerdy personality in a tolerantly indulgent way, provided I didn’t fuck up too often. (Since I could throw accurately, though with little velocity, I was also called on to be the team’s designated plunker, a role I relished and which endeared me to the coach and my teammates alike.) I played for three years, and though my inability to break 70 on the radar gun along with general ineptitude as a fielder ensured I’d go no further than the varsity bench, I enjoyed most of my time as a baseball player and remember those days fondly. They’re part of the reason I grew up to be a baseball fan and a devotee of sports despite my status as a doughy geek.
As a football player, though, I was utterly miserable. The finer points of the game, which I had never enjoyed, escaped me, and my dad more or less forced me to try out for the team in a doomed effort to drill some machismo into me. The position I played was given to me not because I had any true aptitude for it, but because I was the biggest and tallest player on the team; I simply happened to fit a standard physical requirement. Our team was terrible; we had a lousy offense, no overall game plan, and a coach who was frustrated and incompetent. We won but a single game the whole time I played, and I sure as shit didn’t help; I was slow, confused, and not very aggressive, and while I never lost us a game, I was little more than dead weight on the field. The rest of the team – which comprised the alpha jocks of the school, as football attracted the best athletes even though the baseball and basketball teams had more winning ways – despised me. They hated my mental weakness, my intellectual tendencies, my awkwardness, my lack of masculinity and aggression and intensity, and I hated them right back. I was mercilessly bullied, both mentally and physically: I was stripped naked and thrown out of the locker room. I was tossed under the collapsing bleachers of the gym and trapped there for hours; I had to choke myself from crying when I called out to the dean to rescue me. I was beaten with soap bars stuffed into socks. I was called a pussy and a faggot on a daily basis. On our last game of the year, I was plowed into by the hulking Mexican kid who played center for the opposing team and injured my back quite badly; I never played again and looked on my injury as a blessing that allowed me to escape football forever. I still can’t stand football, and I look upon my experiences playing it as a big factor in my loathing for the institutionalized abuse, bogus manliness, and relentless bullying that’s endemic to sports culture.
While I grew up into a man who is almost entirely pacific, I was never a pacifist. I came from a military family, and I was expected to do my time in the service, as every male member of the family had done up until that time. I respected the military (and I still do, despite my deep hatred of war, warrior culture, and the way militarism has strangled our society), and I planned on doing a stint in the Navy. I joined the Naval Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps in high school – again, pressured to do so by my ex-Army dad, but I went along willingly, hoping to get my college tuition paid for, as we were a working-class family. My experiences, again, were twofold.
I took easily to some aspects of the ROTC program. I was adept at military history, strategy and tactics; I was mechanically clever; I learned drill and other aspects of military protocol easily; and I earned ribbons for rifle marksmanship. But I was a wash-out at most of the swimming exercises, a fatal blow for anyone hoping to do time in the Navy, and worse that, I bristled under the strict discipline required. I was a natural at drill, but my uniform was never quite squared away; I always lacked one or another vital skill that would let me make rank. Our instructor was an intelligent man who treated us with respect, but he was also a strict disciplinarian who looked the other way when his selected leaders behaved like martinets, ignoring what the cadets were good at and punishing them for minor infractions of rules I found arbitrary. Even so, I might have done well enough, but my senior year – a time when, not coincidentally, I was developing some serious ethical concerns about military service in general – we were shipped off to a mini-boot camp in San Diego. I relished the training and the chance to familiarize myself with actual naval transports and equipment, but our drill instructor was a bloviating maniac who screamed non-stop abuse at us and handed over the everyday running of the platoon to the usual bullying goons. I flunked out, faked an injury to escape one particularly egregious group punishment – for which I received a beating later that night – and came back embittered at the whole program. I became the first man in my family (though, thankfully, not the last) to eschew military service. I don’t think my dad ever quite forgave me.
Despite his wishes, neither football nor the military instilled in me much of a sense of discipline. In fact, it was quite the opposite; they taught me to distrust and fear authority, to despise officially sanctioned brutality, to hate the standard presentation of maleness in our culture, and I let those qualities make me cynical and lazy. I became quick to look for corruption inside any organization, and keenly sensitive to the fact that people in power would often excuse the bad behavior of their trusted underlings. I didn’t grow up entirely weak or unfocused; I was (to my shame) quite a brawler for much of my late 20s and early 30s, and have often struggled with certain violent tendencies despite my dislike of institutional violence. I found discipline internally, through my art and a somewhat muddled self-image. I even picked up on some elements of American macho culture that I’m not especially proud of and have struggled to overcome: an over-focus on self-reliance, a hostility to people outside of my peer group, a reluctance to ask for help, and a tendency to swallow my emotions. But I never embraced the values my old man hoped I would get out of the organizations that had made him into who he was, for better and for worse.
All this is, of course, prelude to a discussion I’ve been having with myself about the situation with Richie Incognito and the Miami Dolphins – not only his brutal hazing of a teammate, which went so far that the teammate simply walked away from the team, but the way the Dolphins organization handled it, and how that handling has been reacted to in the press and in the court of public opinion. Much of what has been said about the case has come from people who have found it appropriate to heap scorn on Jonathan Martin, the victim of Incognito’s bullying and abuse, and much of what they have said has come from a very familiar position: that Martin should have toughened up. That he should have been a man. That he should have dealt with Incognito, at best, by attacking him in kind, and at worst, by going “in-house” rather than making his case to the press. That he should have nutted up and stood up for himself. That the behavior to which he was subjected – including racist insults and threats to his family – were meant only to build team unity and bring him closer to the group. That football is like the military, and it’s only through the heat of the forge that you make strong steel. That Martin was a pussy. That Martin was a faggot.
The personal anecdotes were offered by way of entrée, because it seems like, particularly in discussions of these pervasively macho areas of American life, individual experience – usually pretty worthless as a means of analyzing a complex situation – is the only way in. How can you judge, if you’ve never played the game? – that’s the question always asked. How can you understand, if you’ve never been in the trenches? And it’s not entirely unfair, that question, though we are all too willing to accept it from others who likewise never strapped on a helmet, either in football or in war. But it highlights some deeply problematic aspects of the issues at hand, which I think inform why the conversation about Incognito and Martin in miniature, as stand-ins for the greater issues of hazing and bullying and the purpose to which they are applied, has gone so disastrously astray.
For one thing, the preference for personal anecdote, and the hostility to statistical analysis and the overall study of trends, points to a disturbing anti-intellectualism in sports. Numbers are just fine so long as they confine themselves to on-field performance, but should they tell us something about the games beyond the games – about economic inequality or racism or sexism or about the NFL’s serious problems with criminal behavior or head injuries – all of a sudden they take a back seat to individual opinion and the nebulous grand traditions of manly striving. No one is more fond of analysis than a sports booster defending his favorite player, and no one is more hostile to it than that same booster being told his sport of choice is institutionally dysfunctional. Eggheads are just fine for predicting VORP and WHIP but keep them away from our fun.
For another, even personal experience is tainted by circumstance. In reading all the defenses of the Dolphins management by men who suffered humiliation, derision and abuse at the hands of their own teammates and coaches, the stink of rationalization wafts off the screen; it is impossible not to wonder if they have simply chosen to believe their debasement had some improving quality because the alternative is to realize that it was all for nothing, just an empty exercise in sadism. How many of these men played for losing teams? How many of them were, as I was, shamed and bullied to no good end, as the numbers increased in the L column and the realization that they were being forged, not into a victorious brotherhood, but into a collection of warped failures? Even if they’d been winners, that teaches us nothing; Jim Bouton famously mocked the idea of team unity in his classic memoir Ball Four, noting that it was always the winning that came first, with team chemistry the effect rather than the cause.
And in some circumstances, personal experience is entirely beside the point. Richie Incognito, widely recognized as one of the dirtiest players in the sport before the Martin revelations, is such a universal type he needs no explication. Everyone has known a Richie Incognito, on their team, at their school, with their unit, in their workplace: he is the kind of casually sociopathic egomaniac for whom the phrase “clubhouse cancer” was invented. Far from instilling team unity, he sows divisiveness everywhere; his relentless abuse draws no one together, but leaves them hoping he’ll suffer a career-ending injury just so the torment will cease. The party line amongst the boosters is that he’s the kind of guy you’d want to share a foxhole with, when in fact he’s the kind of guy who’d get scragged by his own men. He lacks even the demented leadership qualities of a Captain Queeg, or the savage defiance of a Ty Cobb. No one will ever remember fondly having spent time with a shitbag like Richie Incognito; he will be as warmly recalled when his career is over as a prison guard or a hangman.
It is this fact that strikes at the very heart of the issue of hazing, of bullying, and of bonding. The difference between these words may be precariously thin, but it is also dangerously sharp, and crossing it always draws blood. The point of this kind of bonding has always been to draw a group with little in common together, to eradicate their individuality just to the point where they are able to function seamlessly as a whole to achieve a mutual goal. Soldiers are meant to fight and win in wars; athletes are meant to point themselves inerrantly at a championship. The ultimate goal in both cases is to make a man willing to sacrifice himself for his comrades’ sake, not to make him willing to go out of his way to humiliate them. It is a mistake to think you must break men down and dehumanize them and build them back up to men again; what is sought is taking human men and making them greater than they were before. Treating your teammates like shit doesn’t make them want to bond with you and carry you along to glory; it fills them with resentment and makes them want to see you fail. It is a recipe not for victory, but for spite.
This is the reason that every branch of the military has instituted anti-hazing policies. This is the reason that the greatest leaders have depended on respect and not fear. And it is the unwillingness to recognize this, not any inherent flaw in the structure itself but a stubborn refusal to admit that parts of it can rot over time, that has poisoned the atmosphere in both sports and the military. Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall, a bright and outspoken player who’s refused to bow to the prevailing attitudes when discussing his mental health issues, talked about the culture of the NFL and how it reflects one of the most damaging facets of machismo: “A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is ‘Get up, shake it off…don’t cry.’ When a little girl falls down, what do we say? ‘It’s going to be OK’. We validate their feelings. So right there from that moment, we’re teaching our men to mask their feelings, don’t show their emotions…you can’t show that you’re hurt, you can’t show any pain. That’s a problem. And that’s what we have to change.”
The effects of this widespread cultural taboo against men behaving like humans instead of like “men” – effects I have too often invited myself because I am no more immune than anyone to the air I was raised breathing – is obvious to see in football and in military culture. When we discourage athletes from seeking help, when we stack the front office and the ‘leadership’ positions with people hostile to the very idea that there might be something wrong with the institution, you not only get a dozen, a hundred Jonathan Martins; you get a century of players whose brains were scrambled inside their skulls and sought no aid because no aid was offered. When you train a soldier to not let his experiences of war take an emotional hold, when you teach him that silence equals strength, you get the agonizing situation we are in now: an overburdened armed forces in which the pleasures of unity, service and achievement are eclipsed by the horrors of sexual assault, domestic abuse, and a terrifyingly high prevalence of suicide. It is not too much speculation, I think, to reckon that many of the servicemen who took their own lives had been told that seeking help for changes in their minds and hearts they could not fathom, let alone articulate, was a sign of weakness. Of a pussy. Of a faggot.
But it is not just that the perpetrators of this toxic culture, the Richie Incognitos and their toadies and their bosses, are wrong only in a climate of modern mores and changing standards of sensitivity. They are wrong in theory and they are wrong in practice, for it is unity and not divisiveness, cooperation and not resentment, strategy and not tactics, inclusion and not cliqueishness, that wins both ballgames and wars. They would have you believe that they are men of the old school, and that the Jonathan Martins of this world are modern-day sob sisters who pass their malingering off to a sympathetic press as sensitivity of a sort that stands to destroy the grand old game by robbing it of its very masculine essence. They’re wrong, though, and they know it. They know it when they look at the teams in the winning locker rooms, and at the names in the almanacs of past champions. They are kicking downwards on their own because when they kick outwards, they get kicked back and it hurts. If a sea change comes to sports culture, they will be viewed in the same way as were coaches who believed that drinking water on a hot day caused a player to become weak and soft.
I am no Jonathan Martin. He has the goods; he started every game for years in one of the most dangerous positions in the sport. And I am not my father. I intentionally avoided military service, while he lied about his age so he could go fight in Korea before he was 16 years old. But I think I know a little about how Martin feels, and I think it’s enough to know that his is not the weak link in his team’s chain. And I know what happened to my dad, and how the values he was taught by men in the Army who were unfit to lead nearly ruined him later in life, when the physical and psychic wounds he suffered in the war built up and overwhelmed him, but he was too taken with a false notion of manly self-sufficiency to seek help until it was almost too late. Neither sports nor the military lost anything of value by losing me; but if they continue to avoid the problems that drove me away, they will lose more and more men that they desperately do need, until no one is left but the Richie Incognitos.