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Richie Incognito and the Banality of Supermacho

What does being the "toughest of the tough" really mean?
AP / Wilfredo Lee

It's unsurprising to see reports indicating that the Richie Incognito's harassment of Jonathan Martin began in the upper levels of management. Via Deadspin, here is some reporting from The Sun Sentinel:

Miami Dolphins coaches asked player Richie Incognito, who was the offensive line's undisputed leader, to toughen up teammate Jonathan Martin after he missed a voluntary workout last spring, multiple sources told the Sun Sentinel.

The sources told the paper they believe that Incognito, who is accused of using racially incendiary language and bullying tactics against Martin, may have taken those orders too far...

Even though OTA workouts are voluntary, the NFL culture forces coaches to strong arm the team's leaders to make sure everyone attends. Sources say Incognito was doing his job, but they admit he crossed the line.

"Richie is the type of guy where if he's on your team you love him," a teammate said. "If he's not on your team, you hate him. Every team needs a guy like that."

A Dolphins spokesman declined comment when told about Incognito's directives from the coaching staff, saying the franchise is fully cooperating with the NFL's independent investigation, which was requested by owner Steve Ross.

There's been a lot of what my mother used to call "If I Hadda Had My Gun" talk around this story. On the one hand you have the keyboard commandos and sensitive thugs in NFL front offices popping off about "going down swinging." On the other you have players blaming Martin and invoking their own "toughness" and "manliness."

There is something bizarre about all this talk about strength and ass-kicking. No other athlete in a major sport gives so much of his body and gets so little in return than the average player on a NFL team. These are men whoon balanceearn their greatest payday in their most vulnerable and immature years. Those years are generally brief, while the injuries sustained often last a lifetime. The average NFL player emerges into the world with three years of service, and without a college degree. All the while another group of people make millions watching these young men blow out shoulders, knees, and perhaps ultimately, brains.

We all believe in the right to defend one's own body. But the ability to kick someone's ass is oft-stated and overrated. Jerry Jones doesn't want to fight DeAngelo Hall. He won't ever need to, because such is his power that he can erect a Wonderland of a stadium, reduce men to toy soldiers, and toss their battered bodies out onto the street when he's done. Pimping ain't easy, but it sure is fun.

If you squint hard enough you might dimly perceive the outlines of some phantasm, some illusion. You might see power back there behind the scrum. You might see how a national valorization of violence attaches itself to profit. On the streets of Chicago, violently confronting someone for disrespecting you is evidence of a "culture of pathology." In the NFL it is evidence of handling things "the right way."

We are being told that the NFL is filled with the "toughest of the tough," that Richie Incognito is a "tough guy." He had better be. The world is coming. And it's not a game.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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