Acknowledging that maybe Jonathan Martin didn’t act as he should have, and that maybe he’d be better off outside the NFL than in it, is about understanding cultural pluralism, and about having a healthy wariness of attempts to level every American institution into a sedate, aggression-free trust circle of non-judgment and understanding.
Phillips affectingly writes of America as a “nation of gentle accountants and customer-service reps who’ve retained this one venue” — the National Football League — “where we can air-guitar the berserk discourse of a warrior race.” But he says that like it’s a bad thing. On the contrary, this compartmentalization and channeling of destructive impulses into less harmful endeavors — recognized in Freud’s concept of sublimation and William James’s “moral equivalent of war” — is the hallmark of a civilized people. Every institutional order needs it. The Amish need their Rumspringa, Europe needs Amsterdam, and a nation of gentle accountants needs the National Football League.
The violence and untempered masculinity of football is ritualized, highly choreographed, and controlled. There are elaborate rules and a heritable culture that prevent it from spilling into pure gladiatorial combat. It’s hardly perfect — indeed, the concussion epidemic could prove a fatal flaw — but no system is. This is the culture that enabled and even encouraged the Dolphin O-line’s hazing of Martin, and the culture that is critical of Martin for not handling this hazing “indoors.”
It might be true that Incognito went too far, but in relying on the same concept of bullying that applies to the schoolyard, and reflexively condemning any behavior that whiffs of masculine aggression, we risk holding football to a standard that was explicitly never meant for it.