Some in the media were quick to label Incognito a racist, but some of his black teammates defended him. Every NFL locker room is full of proud black men who have a keen eye for the intentions of their white peers. If Richie Incognito said the N-word in a malicious way, those teammates would have taken care of the problem.
Media allegations also peg Incognito as an extortion artist for allegedly forcing Martin to pay for a Vegas trip that Martin didn’t even attend. Again, some context is important here. When we hear of the totals—$15,000 per player for Vegas, rookies sacked with a $30,000 dinner bill—we are taken aback. But in the NFL, there’s no such abacking taken. My rookie-dinner bill was $26,000. Me and three other rookies were responsible for it. Two of us were on the practice squad, and two were low draft picks. We didn’t feel bullied or pressured. It was a tradition that I was in no place to challenge and felt no need to anyway. We were playing with Monopoly money. I never knew how much I had in my bank account. I didn’t balance my checkbook. I sold my number, 89, to a teammate later in my career for $15,000. I didn’t care about 89, but I tried to get as much as I could out of him. I started with $30,000; he started on $15,000. Obviously I wasn’t a very good negotiator. I routinely watched gambling debts fly well into five figures, even six, settled with a check written when we got back to work. There were plenty of guys on our team making $100,000, $200,000, $300,000 per week.
To me, this story is an instance of the curtain being pulled back on the sport and surprising those who sell it. They slam a player for being soft on the field—say he has no desire, no heart, no toughness—and then blast his poor socialization, which, in this case, amounts to a bit of mean-spirited banter. But civilized, harmonious workers and model citizens off the field will never be the savage beasts on the field. You can’t have both.
Richie Incognito lives in the world that our rabid consumption of the game has created. It’s a place for tough guys, where the mentally and physically weak are weeded out quickly. For those who show themselves to be affected by taunting and teasing, the taunting and teasing get louder, until they either break or develop a good defense. If you can’t handle a joke from your teammates, how are you going to handle the fourth quarter when we need you?—that, at least, is the conventional wisdom. Jonathan Martin’s defense was to walk out. Maybe that was a good thing. Maybe we need to get more sensitive about this stuff. But let’s also try to understand it. Richie Incognito acted like an animal because he lives in the jungle.
Jackson's book Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile is available now.