Slurs seem a strange form of love in NFL

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According to Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito, the modern NFL locker room is a universe unto itself.

It is a world where ethnic slurs, homophobic insults, misogynist rants and murderous threats aimed at a colleague's family are not only expected but considered a sign of affection in the right context.

For his part, offensive tackle Jonathan Martin didn't get the memo explaining that his daily humiliation in the Dolphins' locker room was benign and inoffensive. Though his story appears to be changing under the heat of national controversy, Mr. Martin was annoyed enough by Mr. Incognito's jibes to leave the team a few weeks ago.

Mr. Incognito, who has been indefinitely suspended from the team pending an investigation, is bewildered by the assumptions behind much of the criticism of his bullying of Mr. Martin. He doesn't understand why he's being called racist for using a word that even Eminem refuses to utter publicly.

He's bothered that anyone, including Mr. Martin, would confuse racial epithets that "came from a place of love" with the kind of slurs that might fall from the lips of someone far outside of the NFL's magic circle.

After all, the NFL is the perfect post-racial society hinted at by the election of President Barack Obama, but never delivered. The locker room is the one place where even white players have free rein to hurl racial epithets at their unimpressed black colleagues with no fear of recrimination, because it is understood by all that everyone in that room is equal -- unless they're gay or a female passing through.

"In no way, shape or form is it ever acceptable for me to use that word, even if it's friend-to-friend on a voice mail," Mr. Incognito acknowledged during a televised interview over the weekend.

"[The n-word] is thrown around a lot. It's a word that I've heard Jon use a lot," he said, subtly shifting some blame to the alleged victim so that everyone understands that clean hands are rare in the NFL.

"But it's a lot of colorful words that are being thrown around in a locker room that we don't use in everyday life," he said. "All this stuff coming out, it speaks to the culture of our locker room; it speaks to the culture of our closeness; it speaks to the culture of our brotherhood. And the racism, the bad words, that's what I regret most. But that is a product of the environment."

Mr. Incognito doesn't want to be judged by the historical ugliness of the words he used to "toughen up" Mr. Martin. He wants to be judged by the obvious "love" he had for a rookie he considered one of his best friends.

Besides, if you can't occasionally call your best friend the "n-word" and leave an angry voice mail threatening to "murder" his family, then that's not a world any of us should want to live in.

Mr. Incognito, who would have us believe the context of his superficially horrid behavior excuses it, vaguely reminds me of Toronto's embattled crack-smoking mayor Rob Ford -- another garrulous big mouth whose plea to the citizens of Canada's largest city to look at the bigger context is equally silly and self-serving.

Cornered by video evidence shot by junkies or an opportunistic dealer, Mr. Ford doesn't deny that he ever smoked crack. He insists, however, that smoking the most low-brow of street drugs could only happen in the context of "getting hammered" on booze, which is a far more respectable drug.

In a similar way, Mr. Incognito is determined to tell anyone who listens that he is not as racist as he sounds on the voice mail to Mr. Martin in which he called the biracial athlete a "half [n-word]."

If anything, Mr. Incognito was merely spewing fake racism -- the only truly acceptable racism for our post-racial times. Since real racists apparently no longer exist, those who would flout "political correctness" by refusing to treat their colleagues with dignity and respect can engage in fake racism.

Fake racism has the virtue of being supported by the many "sophisticated" blacks in the NFL who tacitly support its use in the locker room. Besides, black athletes, like rappers, aren't averse to using any term that's handy as long as it doesn't interfere with their ability to make money.

Why rock the boat by demanding the same respect inside the locker room that they expect outside?

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.


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