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Mr. Smith: Duchamp, the Big Glass and Chronic Illness
A few weeks ago, an NFL player named Jonathan Martin, offensive left tackle for the Miami Dolphins, walked off the team and sought counseling for emotional health issues. This has led to the suspension of his teammate, the incongruously-named Richie Incognito, on charges of outlandish workplace harassment; an official NFL investigation into the team, now reaching to behavior by the coaches; and the kind of publicity you just can't buy. Plenty of NFL players, sports pundits, and armchair tough guys have denounced the 6'5", 312-pound Martin as soft and weak and proclaimed that outsiders just can't understand what goes on in an NFL locker room. While I don't accept that locker rooms are sacred spaces that outsiders have no right to criticize, it is true that we don't have a great sense of what is going on inside them. Maybe Miami's locker room is unusually dysfunctional, and maybe it's dysfunctional in ways that every NFL locker rooms is. But in either case, Martin may not be any weaker than the other players. He may simply have more options.
Martin played for Stanford and majored in classical history. He's a 6'5" behemoth who's fluent in Latin. His parents are attorneys who met at Harvard, and he turned down a chance be a fourth-generation Harvard student in order to play for nationally-ranked Stanford. (It's worth noting that Martin is bi-racial and the longest Harvard legacy in his family is on the African-American side, going back to a great-grandfather in the 1920s.)
Those facts may lend themselves to a familiar narrative about the privileged kid who isn't used to doing things the hard way. But playing football for Stanford is not really the easy way. Martin played on a top-ten, nationally ranked team; that team could not have competed that successfully unless the football training was extremely rigorous. Playing football for Harvard, on the other hand, would be much easier. The football part of playing football for Stanford isn't significantly different than playing football for Nebraska, Mississippi, or UCLA. What is different is that Stanford football players (and excuse my pride here) also have an extremely rigorous academic program, comparable to any Ivy League school's. At Stanford, football practice is like football practice at Nebraska and class is like class at Harvard. Which part of that sounds like the easy way?
But Martin's background does give him options that many other NFL players don't have. I don't think Martin is the only player who's felt like he can't take the abuse any more. The difference is that most other players have to take it anyway, even when they can't. Where else are they going to go?
If Jonathan Martin never plays football again, he will certainly not see NFL-style money for many years, and possibly never earn as much over the course of his working life. The NFL is paying him seven figures a year. But the total sacrifice of lifetime income may actually not be that large, and there is a real possibility that over the next thirty years Martin could make as much outside the game as he would if he stays in the NFL. He is one of the players most likely to replace his football income by other means. That money would come slower and be less glamorous. But if he went back to Stanford to finish his classics degree and then went into law or finance, he might make upper-middle-class money or better very quickly, and potentially pull down seven figures a year near the end of his career. Instead of making millions for a few years in his twenties, and then some lesser income, he could make a lesser income and then a huge one. Or he could decide that making a six-figure salary in a workplace where no one calls him a "half nigger," talks about "shit[ting] in his mouth," threatens to gang-rape his sister, or shakes him down for $15,000 is better than making millions while being relentlessly extorted and degraded. Jonathan Martin can afford, in the most literal sense, not to put up with that shit.
The average NFL player, on the other hand, does in fact need to take that shit. A great many NFL players cannot afford to walk away. They do not have the choice between making their NFL salaries and making a dignified living as an affluent professional somewhere else. They have the choice between making millions of dollars, no matter the cost to them personally, and making working-class money. If they left the game, many of them would simply be large men without college degrees. For many, their partial college educations were not a genuine preparation for any other field. For most players, there is no other plan. It's the NFL or nothing.
Nothing is more human than resenting someone who is free to walk away from abuse that you have to accept. It isn't reasonable or fair, but it is very, very human. If you have to take as much as your coaches and teammates dish out without showing that it bothers you, and you've developed whatever coping strategies you need to keep accepting that mistreatment, there's no one you hate more than the guy who doesn't have to take it. You can't afford to hate the people who actually beat up on your body and your mind. You have to tell yourself you don't. So there's lots of resentment waiting to be transferred to the guy who decides he's too good to take the abuse that you have to take. What makes him special? It isn't fair. And actually, it isn't, although it's not the guy who's refusing the mistreatment who's to blame.
And let's be very clear: people defending Incognito's behavior or denigrating Martin's have talked about the hazing and bullying, always in vague generalizations, as necessary "toughening." But when you get down to the specific behaviors involved, it's never about making the younger player tougher. It's about making them compliant and docile to authority, beating them down and forcing them to accept any abuse whatever petty tyrant in the locker room decides to dish out. Being "tough" in this context means being a better victim. No one who demands that you give them $15,000 so they can take a trip to Las Vegas is doing that to build your character. And forking over the money does not make you strong. It makes you a chump. That is what the hazing in Miami's locker room was designed to do: not to make the younger players strong, but to break their will, to make them pushovers, terrified to miss a "voluntary" extra practice, afraid to do anything that would displease a coach.
Most of our public conversation about the NFL lately has been about concussions and brain damage. But we cannot have any serious conversation about player health when the players themselves have been cowed this way. An NFL culture that prizes obedience above anything else, that demands players accept any abuse they receive in silence, can never protect its players' health. The whole system is designed to destroy them.