By now the controversy in the locker room of football’s Miami Dolphins is known to many. A white player, Richie Incognito (yes, that’s his name), was suspended after some very threatening and racist messages he made, Tweets to be specific, toward teammate Jonathan Martin, an African-American, came to light after Martin left the team. The barrage of insults is apparently just the latest in a string of taunts by Incognito in an atmosphere of workplace harassment. The tweets would lead you to believe that Incognito was auditioning for a role in a Quentin Tarantino movie given the casualness with which Incognito dropped the N-word into his rants against Martin.
The reaction outside the Dolphins locker room was pretty swift, with many people condemning Incognito’s behavior and coming to Martin’s defense. Such was not the case among the Dolphins, however, as players, including African-Americans, came to Incognito’s defense and charged the episode as simply locker room banter; the stuff us normal folks would not understand is part of NFL culture.
Well, Shannon Sharpe didn’t understand it either and he certainly has been inside the NFL. During the Sunday NFL broadcast on CBS the former All-Pro tight end for the Denver Broncos, Hall of Famer and television commentator expressed his disgust with Incognito and the players inside the Dolphins organization who took no exception to Incognito’s racist rants. Sharpe, in a memorable television moment, schooled the Black Dolphins players on why the N-word is so offensive and lectured them on the idiocy of supporting Richie Incognito. He became incensed when relaying that he heard some Black Dolphin players had deemed Incognito an “honorary Black.” Dropping all pretense of non-affected sports journalist, Shannon Sharpe put his blackness on the table and made clear that conscious African-Americans knew a line had been crossed. It was refreshing to see a Black man of professional standing, take a stand.
If this is the norm for NFL locker rooms Commissioner Roger Goodell has a real mess on his hands. In a sport where Black athletes excel and make white owners wealthy, this episode might expose a dark underbelly of the sport that heretofore had remained behind closed doors. For his part Goodell has hired legal titan Ted Wells to lead an investigation of the Dolphins over this episode. Given his track record in high profile cases, Wells is the right pick and has the gravitas to get to the heart of the matter. It won’t be easy though to crack the bravado and machismo of the football fraternity. What will aid in getting to the truth is for the commissioner to make plain that the National Football League is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary and impose stiff penalties, including suspension and expulsion, against any player found engaging in the type of behavior alleged of Incognito.
It is easy to express anger at Richie Incognito, and he should be the primary target of the public’s disgust, but I can’t help but express a similar distaste for those Black players who are defending this guy. There was a time when Black athletes were part of forward progress and were looked upon as leaders in their own right. Stellar champions like Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown, Althea Gibson, Muhammad Ali, Wilma Rudolph, Curt Flood, Arthur Ashe and the former Lew Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and others, played their sports with conviction and were principled in their demand for equal treatment. Today we seem to have a crop of athletes, filthy rich and wallowing in the trough of ignorance. When it becomes acceptable to be degraded and humiliated for the sake of social acceptance, there is little value you bring to your community. The Black Dolphins players who deem Incognito’s behavior permissible bring shame to not only themselves and their families, but their ancestors whose sacrifice made their multi-million dollar careers possible.
I understand Shannon Sharpe’s anger and I share his sense of outrage because if nothing else, in the 21st century we should have enough common sense to love ourselves. Whoever the Black players are that have defended Incognito they need to be made aware of their transgression, and they need to come to terms with who they are. We have all engaged in a little bit too much gridiron worship on Sunday and have given these athletes the sense that they are not bound by the same rules of human decency that regulate our behavior and relations. It is why there is no sense of accountability on the part of these athletes to fans and certainly not to their own community. All the nonsense and foolishness is quickly forgotten after the next highlight reel. It is why these athletes get a pass every time the question is put on the table as to their responsibility to “give back,” defended by the very people they refuse to defend in the locker room.
No matter the long-term outcome of the league’s investigation, Roger Goodell has a right now problem because the NFL workplace has been exposed. And Black players on NFL rosters are now under a different spotlight; one in which African-Americans should demand these Black men declare on which “team” they are playing.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.