Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Human Stain

Whenever a societal hot button issue such as racism, sexism, gay rights, pick a similar topic, arises in the world of professional sports, confusion reigns.  Empty grandiose words flow easily from mouths and keyboards for a few days and then the conversation shifts once again.  Meaningful change isn’t discussed much mainly because most of the participants, from the players to the folks who cover them and the fans that watch them can’t reconcile the depth of the issue in the context of the frivolity of sports.

It’s why, really, when the Jonathan Martin story broke that so many knuckleheaded opinions got bandied about.  The incongruity of a physically big Martin playing in the most brutal of sports becoming overwhelmed by verbal taunting was hard to process for many.

Martin, a second year tackle for the Miami Dolphins, walked away from the team and potentially a lucrative career.  That he was willing to do so spoke volumes about the seriousness of the situation and yet many still tended to trivialize the conduct or Martin or Richie Incognito or, worse, compartmentalize the story in the safe, weird corner that is sports as if it had no larger implications.

NFL Commission Roger Goodell hired lawyer Ted Wells and his law firm to conduct an independent investigation and report the results publicly.  Goodell understood at least at a basic level the implications of the situation and its impact on the brand he was hired to protect.  Hiring Wells and commissioning him to publish a public report on his findings turned out to be a brilliant stroke, irrespective of Goodell’s motives. 

Wells’ report came out last week and as I picked through the ugliness of all the investigation revealed, I wondered first about the comments of some of Martin’s teammates like Brian Hartline, the Dolphins’ receiver, who came down hard and against Martin in the immediate aftermath of Martin’s departure.  He was hardly alone. 

I also wondered about the legislators at the local, state and national levels that have repeatedly opposed laws against discrimination as some sort of unnecessary burden on job creators.  And then I wondered about the job creators themselves, the ones who don’t want the administrative burdens of eradicating discrimination in their work place because they don’t see any relationship between human interaction and productivity and thus are all too willing to support politicians who will keep the political correctness police at bay.

The Wells report is much more than a simple report about an unfortunate situation taking place on one NFL team.  It’s a cultural touchstone, a reminder that there are real world consequences to the rhetoric that too many still accept as mainstream, both within and outside the workplace.

For me, I can’t help but see the Wells report and the conduct he uncovered as informed in part by the harsh words from those Republicans who strenuously and vocally oppose immigration reform that’s based on a principle that accepts the basic human dignity of those who entered this country illegally and are just looking for a path forward to rectify that wrong.  I also can’t help but see the Wells report and the conduct uncovered as informed by the ugly words of homophobics who use ginned up religious justifications for denying basic human rights to gays.  And I can’t help but see the Wells report and the conduct uncovered in the context of those who would claim they aren’t racist but are more than willing to have a laugh and pass along emails on a daily basis that make fun of the President of our country because of the color of his skin.

This country has a shameful and embarrassing history of discrimination that still courses through the veins of the mainstream.  Just last week, the legislature in Tennessee undertook consideration of a bill that would allow public servants (including police and fire) to refuse providing service to someone who offends their religious sensibilities.  That means, for example, that if you’re gay and getting beat up on the streets of Knoxville, a police officer can refuse to protect you because he, too, is offended by your gayness.  It won’t likely become law but the fact that it was introduced speaks volumes.

The state of Georgia recently and once again approved the issuance of specialty license plates that feature the Confederate flag, justifying it as a tribute to their southern heritage without even acknowledging the racially-charged and offensive aspects of that southern heritage.

The U.S. Senate, with bi-partisan support, passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that would make workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity illegal but the Republican controlled House of Representatives won’t even bring it up for a vote.  They have their reasons but all roads go back to the same place—they value the interests of shop owners over the seemingly trivial concerns of a wide swath of the people these shop owners need to get the work done.

University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam declared his sexuality openly in hopes of eliminating the whisper campaign that undoubtedly would have devalued his draft status.  And of course the minute he did there were NFL officials who privately surmised that indeed his draft status would be impacted not because his skills suddenly lessened but because someone providing “those kind” of locker room distractions apparently deserved to be paid less.

I don’t need to get into all the miscreants who play professional sports, from the drug addled to the wife beaters, which are welcomed back into the fold to make my point.  The fact that even one NFL executive would privately assume that a gay athlete would be a distraction explains exactly how the Dolphins’ situation could deteriorate to the point that it did.

The essence of prejudice is misguided assumptions and as a society we allow those assumptions to repeatedly guide us down the wrong historical paths.  This is a country after all that fought a war over the existence of slavery.  This is a country that denied blacks and women the right to vote.  This is a country that prohibited interracial marriage.  This is a country that still won’t recognize the workplace rights of gays and transgenders, let alone their familial rights.

The prejudices in this country, whether or not openly and unabashedly practiced, are insidious.  It’s a narrow-mindedness, sure, but it’s not isolated.  It’s open, it’s common and too often it’s accepted.  We should literally be screaming from the mountains at all the Bible thumpers who oppose gay rights but we don’t because we’re either just secretly like them or don’t want to defend those rights for fear we’ll be ostracized as well.  God forbid.

I see Hartline and the other Dolphins who defended Incognito at the outset (and now suddenly silent) as a marker for what ails this country most.  They’d be the first to claim that they don’t condone racism, just ask them.  But they were completely blind to the simple fact that words matter and actions matter even more.  Consumed by their own worlds, they lacked the empathy necessary to understand the private torment of their own teammate.  They heard the language in the locker room, they may have even repeated it.  They just didn’t think anything of it and they certainly never bothered to look below the surface because it never occurred to them that there was anything below the surface to see.

Eradication of racism, sexism, prejudice requires much more than a drive-by interest.  You can’t declare that you have gay friends as proof that you aren’t homophobic.  There has to be more.  For the Hartlines of the world to become not just team leaders but fully realized members of the larger society they’ll have to stick their necks out once in a while.  You can’t criticize Martin for not standing up to an insecure bully like Incognitio when you weren’t willing to do that either.

It is important to be completely invested in the experiences of others.  This isn’t about lopping guilt on the white bread existence of people like Hartline.  Instead it’s about getting them to recognize that the world of others is often much different

What the Wells report underscores more than anything else is the complexity of these kinds of situations and the extreme difficulties inherent in eliminating them.  The Dolphins fired two assistants and a bunch of players will undergo sensitivity and diversity training.  It won’t be enough.

Martin was tormented by his teammates and no one bothered to rally to him.  It wasn’t just the racist language, although that was part of it.  It was the constant and graphic sexual taunts about Martin’s sister and mother that ate at Martin.  The words were tough enough.  But they also fed into a deteriorating self image that Martin had of himself, an image of someone not strong enough to defend the honor of the two most important women in his life.

Martin’s upbringing, he theorized in particularly heartbreaking texts to his mother, left him soft when it came to street smarts.  In high school he felt bullied despite his size and it never got better for him.   That should sound familiar because it’s literally happening this moment still in every high school in this country.  There’s a black, a gay, a lesbian, a transgender, a nerd, a geek, a kid who’s too short, too tall, a girl who’s not pretty, someone who’s overweight, being picked on for being different and while we profess a willingness to stop it, while we pass anti bullying statutes and write rules, the truth is that we don’t stop it because we don’t really see it as the problem for what it is, a human stain on a society that isn’t so great. 

Heck, the Dolphins had well written anti-discrimination policies that Incognito and the rest of the players signed.  You can surmise that they didn’t take them seriously.  What’s more horrific to contemplate is that it never really occurred to them, to Hartline, to quarterback Ryan Tannehill, to head coach Joe Philbin, to the rest of the coaching staff, to most of the rest of the league and the people that cover it, that Incognito’s behavior on a daily basis for two seasons (and likely far longer) was violating every last principle behind those rules.

Some can handle taunts that way, others can’t.  But to celebrate those who can implies that the weaker among us deserve what they get.  Those who advocated, and there were plenty of them in the media and among current and former players, that Martin should have just punched Incognito in order to end the abuse see naked power as the answer.  It doesn’t occur to them that by standing by silently, they made Incognito who he was in the first place.  And if it occurred to them, then they just didn’t care enough to put an end to it for fear of upsetting some other delicate balance of a mediocre team.

Discrimination isn’t an individual problem.  It’s a shared problem over which all of us bear responsibility.

You can trivialize the Wells report or confine it to the context of professional sports, but that would be a mistake.  Human dignity is at the core of our principles as Americans and to suggest that the loss of it is more or less acceptable in some situations, because for example the participants make a lot of money or are bigger than others or don’t share what others consider to be mainstream beliefs, demeans us all.

Martin is today’s victim.  Tomorrow’s victim might be your brother, your sister, your nephew.  Maybe the best way to make sense of the Wells report is to remember the words of the poem by German pastor Martin Niemoller who was critical of the German intellectuals that didn’t rise up against Hitler.  They’re just as valid today:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me




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