Context matters. Until it doesn’t.
Watching and listening to the story unfold of how NFL player Richie Incognito bullied and used racial slurs against teammate Jonathan Martin, I noticed a theme in the commentary and reactions about how “context matters”.
Not quite “boys will be boys”, the explanations and defense of the NFL locker room culture sounded almost antiquated. Most apologists have couched what sounds like hazing, threats, bullying and racial slurs in the context of team camaraderie that only the initiated can appreciate.
It didn’t take long for those “the way things are” arguments to sound ridiculous despite their apparent accuracy. The truth of the NFL culture (in or out of the locker room) permitting and, if Incognito is to be believed, even encouraging racist, bullying, and harassing behavior goes beyond what most people can justify or excuse even from a violent and aggressive sport.
I have to stress the word “most” because fans commenting on stories think this is the stuff that’s turning America into a bunch of sissies. Being “overly sensitive” to abusive behavior when, in the context of the physically and verbally violent sport of football, the abuse has been historically accepted and expected. Again and again context is the excuse.
I feel sorry for Incognito. The cultural change in the locker room, as small as it may end up being, will be the hardest on guys like him. The new expectation that things do not cross a certain line when players are busting each others balls will be tough to figure out when there was no line before.
The idea that you could be considered a racist if you use racial slurs will be the new context. And a reason is not an excuse. That may be a bit deep for most folks, but I’m putting it out there anyway.
The context arguments reminded me of a scene in the movie Babe when the cow says, “The only way you’ll find happiness is to accept that the way things are is the way things are.” The duck (who is fighting becoming Christmas dinner) says “The way things are stinks!” For whatever reason Jonathan Martin, like the duck, could no longer accept the way things are.
I hope the NFL follows suit.