A position of strength

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

There's nothing surprising about locker room bullying in football, or about Richie Incognito being a jerk. But that's, increasingly, not what the story of Incognito and Jonathan Martin is about.

Before it's the thing the NFL sells, football is a game, and a game most of us have played. We might have played it in middle school or high school or college or just chasing cousins around the front yard on Thanksgiving, two-hand touching or flag-pulling or bareheaded tackling in intramurals or pickup games or whatever the hell was going on in those Brett Favre Wrangler ads. But it's a game, and one we're familiar with, albeit a game that is both progressively more intricate and more brutal as it rises toward the abstracted extremes of complexity and violence and airless branded singularity it achieves at its highest level.

Because it is so difficult and so hard, football eventually sloughs most of us off along the way as players. If the fundamental pitch-and-catch game we love first is always there for us, there is also the inescapable fact that NFL football is a game virtually none of us could play. The NFL -- the vast and lucrative thing leveraged on all those unimaginable points of impact and various virtuosities -- is a different thing than the game we played and know, and we engage it in a different way and, inescapably, as different people. It's a TV show, finally, and we consume and engage it as that.

We'll get back to that. But first I want to tell you about Milt Singer's hands.

There's no reason why you'd know Milt Singer's name, even if he had played in the NFL. He was introduced to me as Milt Singer Who Played For The Giants, even though he didn't -- he played on the line at Syracuse during the first deep trough of the Great Depression, alongside his brother Walter, who did in fact go on to play for the Giants. That was more than half a century before I met Milt. The person introduced to me was a smush-faced and variously cauliflower-ed man well into his 70s; he'd had a family, a life, and yet he was still introduced as Milt Singer Of NFL Football. This was, clearly, how my grandfather -- who grew up in the same neighborhood as Singer and his brother -- thought of him, or at least how he thought this rumbly, old Jewish guy would seem most impressive to my babbling, brace-faced pre-tween self.

I remember a warm smile coming from a face that looked like a kind rockslide, and while I may be misremembering this part -- I was little -- I also recall a certain weariness from Singer as he listened to my grandfather reel off a 50-year-old football résumé. Mostly, though, I remember shaking Milt Singer's hand: a gargantuan Mickey Mouse glove carved from warm granite, fissured and cracked and broken and set and re-broken and re-set.

This was not a superhuman's hand, but something even more remarkable than that. It was a human hand that had been recast by suffering until it had become something different, something so unlike my own soft child's hands that I could not imagine one ever being like the other. Here is a Giant, my grandfather said, a small god from Jersey City. And the thick mythic fog of the old neighborhood rolled in as he spoke, the same vapor already burning off over that old neighborhood, revealing a landscape that in point of fact barely resembled the one my grandfather -- a tough and unsentimental and frequently unkind man -- could and did so frequently and lovingly describe.

Star-divide

It's not news that Richie Incognito is a jerk. If fans knew anything about the recently suspended Miami Dolphins guard before the revelation of his wild bullying and freelance terrorizing of teammate Jonathan Martin -- which was more recently revealed to have been ordered if not explicitly suborned by the Dolphins' coaching staff -- it was that Richie Incognito was a jerk's jerk, one of the nastier and more dysfunctional humans in football.

Incognito was kicked out of two different colleges for fighting anyone he could; he was released by the St. Louis Rams during a 1-15 season because he was extravagantly out of control on the field and off; he has long been considered, by broad consensus and whatever the opposite of acclaim is, the dirtiest player in the NFL. All of which is to say that you would not want Richie Incognito as a co-worker, or even left unsupervised around anyone you cared about. If you had not reached the conclusion that Richie Incognito is something of a sociopath before this story broke, it would be because you were insufficiently familiar with Richie Incognito and his body of work.

Right-thinking corners of the NFL discourse responded immediately to the story of Incognito's multiply objectionable cruelties more or less as you'd expect them to. That is, by decrying the NFL's steak-headedly retrograde machismo, pointing out that bullying is a complicated thing that can happen even to adults like Jonathan Martin, further pointing out that the NFL tends to not just humor, but nurture, players like Incognito until they become unusable for one reason or another. Our own Matt Ufford made an eminently reasonable case for a league-wide anti-hazing policy modeled on the one used in the United States Marine Corps. All good points, and all already being subsumed by a strange and sadly familiar backlash:

Initially this was limited to criticisms of Martin. Shield-polishing herald of NFL mainstreamery Peter King wasn't sure anyone was to blame, but Kingishly credited the Dolphins for some strongly worded press releases and pushed the line that Martin was "mentally weak" with his usual line-toeing dispassion. Various NFL personnel types lined up to tell Sports Illustrated's Jim Trotter how much they abhorred Martin's cowardice in not handling his torment "like a man." These strong men, naturally, delivered their condemnations anonymously.

Lately and hesitantly, the recasting of the story expanded to include defenses of Incognito's good-guy credentials by his Dolphins teammates, if not quite his actions. Now, with sources in the Dolphins locker room explaining that Incognito was accepted as "more black" than Martin, there is some cover being provided for Incognito calling Martin a "half-nigger piece of shit" in a voicemail message. It has been reported, repeatedly, that Martin is biracial, which casts Incognito's slur as a bit of literal-minded racism. But Martin isn't of mixed race descent: A simple Google search reveals that his parents are both black, and both Harvard graduates. Had Martin gone to Harvard, he would have been the fourth generation of his family to attend. He went to Stanford instead, and earned a degree in classics.

This seems like an easy enough thing to get right. But even as this story continues to metastasize and implicate (many!) people beyond the ham-faced sociopath behind those creepy voicemails, there is a palpable sense of a frantic winding-down, a collective attempt at high-speed burial. The epitaph on this story is already legible, and it contains the words "man's game" and the expanded locution National Football League, which is how the sport's most abject and worshipful obfuscators refer to it when they want you to understand the league as they do -- as a thing bigger than any particular institutionalized horror or inherent vice.

This particular disgrace, which is about a bunch of difficult things, is being devoured by a stubborn and unshakeable reverence -- for a musty and deeply dumb concept of toughness, for the idea that NFL players are somehow something more than men, and for the unabbreviated National Football League and all its masculine romance.

Star-divide

There is a story to be written about the proudly advertorial, power-humping access journalism that predominates in NFL media, and which has defined the way this story has been covered by King and the NFL media's other alpha puffers. But that is a different story, and anyway, Spencer Hall already started writing it, and this seems to be about a bigger problem than that. What we see as this story slides toward its fade-out is not just the lazy rollout of old macho binaries -- strong and weak; hard and soft; like a man or devastatingly not -- but a greater capitulation to the old, overarching mythology of the NFL.

There is an actual reality under this reeking veil of beefy old truisms, a real hierarchy and a real concept of masculinity embodied in NFL locker rooms that is multiply haywire and not necessarily functional or even effective, but still real enough. It's not a thing that anyone writing about football really understands, and not just because they have not experienced the nightmare-frat-by-way-of-HBO's-Oz culture of the Miami Dolphins locker room.

That doesn't help, but these NFL advocates don't understand it because it is their business not to understand it. This myth-fogged misunderstanding of what the NFL is -- the insistence on portraying players as humble yeomen who put their lunchpails on one blue collar at a time and also as invincible demigods; the parallel high-altitude character bombing of those players when they disappoint -- is the NFL's core product every bit as much as the games are. It is, more than any single thing, what NFL media sells. Incognito himself was the beneficiary of that earlier this year, thanks to a ludicrous I've Met A New Friend, And It's Me self-discovery puff piece on NFL.com.

This, in part, is why there has been so little practical assessment of whether Incognito really is the virus he seems to be. Incognito's whole career shows us a middling player who has not made any of the lousy teams that have employed him any better, who was the only player on the Dolphins offensive line having a worse season than Martin this year, and whose devotion to pushing the boundaries of traditional locker room hazing helped create a culture that was weakening the Dolphins before Martin released those voicemails -- and who, in the words of one opponent, "played to maim" and was a bully any and everywhere he could be. But we can all agree, he was very tough. You'd want him in your foxhole, your bar fight, your decades-old metaphor for the same thing this always winds up being about.

Of all the things that are disappointing about watching this story collapse in the NFL media into a dozen ultra-abstracted encyclicals and bulls -- On Toughness, Man And Less-Man, On Boys And How They Will Be -- the foremost is how predictable it is. It's that shortsightedness that led the Dolphins to sic Incognito on Martin in the first place, and we see that shortsightedness again as this story about a specific cultural conflict and multi-front failure is reduced to a bunch of Alpha Grandpas grousing willfully into their laptops about Creeping Wussification and Talmudic parsings of Man Code. It takes a deep commitment to discussing things as they aren't, as they are romantically imagined to be -- to tell only one story, over and over again. A bunch of men, lost and starry-eyed amid the crevasses of callus in old Milt Singer's broken hands.

Here, again, is the folly and romance of my grandfather's awe, and the reason for Singer's seeming shame about it. It must have been strange, standing there as his old human self in a life not that unlike any other, listening while some other romantic fool insists on introducing him to strangers not as a man, but as a myth.

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