Despite the name, there’s not a lot of mystery about Richie Incognito.
The type is familiar enough in the NFL: a tough guy; a football player almost from birth. An All-American in high school, talented, aggressive, and huge, Incognito had an impressive college career, though it was marred by what the New York Post calls “numerous anger-related incidents”—personal fouls and fights. He was bounced from Nebraska in his senior year, then sat out his first season in the NFL before manifesting as an explosive force on the Ram’s offensive line. He also drew 38 penalties in his first four seasons.
He played to type, in other words. If you were sketching the man’s character for a novel, you probably wouldn’t name him “Incognito” (Italian, from the Latin incognitus, “unknown”), because his bad behavior has been nothing if not public, most of it captured by dozens of cameras broadcasting to millions of television viewers. Every foul, every fight, has taken place on the record. Or so you’d have thought until this year, when Jonathan Martin, Incognito’s teammate on the Miami Dolphins, accused him of bullying and produced voicemail recordings to prove it.
How did Richie, this conspicuous mountain of muscle and tattoos who makes his living on national television, manage to keep such brazen misconduct out of the public eye? Well, he had help. He had the complicity of his teammates, and possibly of his coaches (who are rumored to have tasked him with “toughening up” the rookie Martin). He had the “code” of the locker room, which encourages hazing as a bonding mechanism. He had the natural inclination of people to look the other way when something uncomfortable is happening. Sports Illustrated interviewed an unnamed rookie from Martin’s cohort about the abuse, and was told, “Only Richie knows why he did that.”
No one asked him, it seems.
Incognito also had help from the culture of the NFL, with its history of stonewalling on concerns that might cut into its obscene profits. He had, in other words, a massive wall of secrecy as a bulwark around his treatment of Martin.
As a martial artist, I regularly engage in consensual violence in the name of sport, so I’m not inclined to vilify Incognito. I have a low opinion of locker-room hijinks generally, and head-butting and butt-slapping aren’t exactly my idea of camaraderie, but I understand the appeal of bonding rituals. The fact that I, a run-of-the-mill suburban mother of two, dissolve into helpless laughter when my friend KJ sucker-punches me coming out of the dressing room, is indicative of the ways violence can build friendship.
Obviously context is important to that process. KJ and I are black belts. We spend a lot of time hitting each other as part of a larger project: our development as martial artists. We have rules, formal and informal, about how and why we hit each other. I wouldn’t call it a “code,” exactly, but part of our friendship rests on a shared desire to be challenged, physically and mentally.
If challenge is something you desire, people who will challenge you are a real blessing. And when you consistently seek challenges, and grow more skilled at meeting them, the group of people who can truly challenge you tends to become smaller and smaller. It often boils down to an intimate circle, the select few who know your weaknesses and understand the kinds of work you need to do to improve, and who share enough of your history to have earned your trust. In that context, violence can form strong social bonds and it can lead to personal growth. But when it takes place in a closed, secretive environment, it can mutate into abuse with breathtaking speed.
This danger came up recently at a promotion test at our dojo, when our guest instructor, Jun Shihan Sarah Luddon of Thousand Waves Martial Arts in Chicago, paused the proceedings to thank all the friends and relatives who had come to watch. They were an important element of the test, she said; a deliberate rejection by our school of the more traditional, closed approach to martial arts rank testing, where only the school’s instructors are allowed to observe what goes on.
Jun Shihan’s school, like ours, is a non-profit organization with a mission of violence prevention. Like our dojo, hers was founded by women and is still led primarily by women. Our schools regard martial arts training as a means to large-scale social change as well as personal transformation. In any school based on those values, Jun Shihan emphasized, closed tests have no place. “Because so much violence,” she reminded us, “is rooted in secrecy.”
It was a sobering reminder, especially since she wasn’t talking about martial arts. Sure, there are schools where students are abused under the guise of discipline or manliness or warriorship. But Jun Shihan was referring instead to the more commonplace forms of violence: domestic assault, child abuse, sexual exploitation, elder abuse. These types of violence are the reason many people take up the martial arts. Our school was founded in direct response to their prevalence in our culture. And they thrive in secrecy, these strains of violence; they germinate and are perpetuated there.
So open tests are not merely our school’s way of ensuring that our practice is transparent and healthy—that KJ and I don’t start leaving death threats on each other’s answering machines. Open tests are a profession of our faith. We believe that power and force can transform lives for the better. But the only ethical way to effect such transformation is to do it openly, where anyone can observe, object, condemn or contest our methods.
A whole lot of belated objecting and condemning happened for the Miami Dolphins this season, and boy was it a mess. A writhing tangle of allegiances emerged from beneath the rock of silence. Some Dolphins reportedly felt Incognito had “violated the code” of the locker room when he continued to haze Martin after his rookie season. Others felt Martin had violated the same code, by complaining about his treatment. Incognito’s much-condemned use of racial slurs seems to have bothered his fellow players less than it did the journalists reporting on them.
Some players and coaches who’ve known Incognito for years vouched for him as a “great guy.” Others who bore up-close witness to his often unnecessary roughness described him as vile and hateful. The NFL Players Association awkwardly said it would support both Incognito and Martin if they chose to file grievances. The league and the team opened investigations. Lawyers representing various parties weighed in, as did the fans.
That’s a lot of healthy discussion, and you can bet it’s costing someone a colossal pile of money. Let’s hope the Dolphins, and the rest of the league, take a lesson from it: The more central violence is to your business plan, the more scrutiny you probably want to expose yourself to. Because violence and secrecy are a dangerous combination. In a confined space, they will always, eventually, combust.
And it’s not enough to make the dramatic parts of your violence—the tackles, the unsportsmanlike conduct—visible. You have to bring all of it out into the light of day.
Former Broncos player Nate Jackson knows this. Jackson, who played wide receiver and tight end from 2003-8, explains in his recent memoir how team doctors created meticulous records of every injury and treatment he endured—not for the purpose of helping him heal, but to reduce the league’s risk of liability in later years if Jackson should file a worker’s compensation claim.
The violence Jackson experienced on the field is, just like the violence Richie Incognito doled out there, a matter of public record. It was consensual and above-board. What was kept secret, from the viewing public and from Jackson himself, was the medical violence being done to him throughout his NFL career. After Jackson managed to extract his records from the Broncos via subpoena, he discovered that in many cases, his body’s healing had been thwarted or shortchanged for the sake of a quick turn-around, getting him back onto the playing field ASAP, regardless of the long-term effects on his body. He was misled about the extent of his injuries, and the extent of his healing. That carefully fostered ignorance made Jackson much more willing to accede to the treatments his employers advised him to undergo. He’ll never know how much long-term physical damage he could have avoided if they hadn’t kept secrets from him.
Likewise, the NFL’s (now well-documented) attempt to minimize the link between concussion and brain injury has resulted in an untold number of ruined lives. Mike Webster, Justin Strzelczyk, Andre Waters and Junior Seau are among the few we know about. Like a magician who helps a smiling lady out of a sword-skewered box, the NFL makes a great show of depicting injured players walking off the field, waving from the doctor’s golf cart, smiling on the sidelines despite the blood. Unlike a successful magician, however, the NFL has been burying a lot of body parts after the audience goes home. The sleight of hand is masterful: We think we’re seeing all of the violence, but much of the harm is really being done elsewhere, out of our line of sight.
The link between violence and secrecy isn’t unique to the NFL. It’s a universal, and predictable, human problem. It occurs in families, workplaces, neighborhoods—anywhere you have people, really.
When violence is rooted in secrecy, those roots strike deep and spread in insidious patterns. Secrecy, for example, can make victims of violence feel complicit in their own abuse. It complicates their efforts to escape, because in order to escape, they must first convince themselves that what is happening is wrong. When no one else is speaking up to condemn the violence—when people pretend or assume it isn’t happening—the person being injured may second-guess their perception of the violence: Maybe I misunderstood what happened. Maybe I deserved it. Maybe every family is like this.
Even when the victim is certain that something is wrong, he or she still has to convince others that the violence is real: Did you take pictures of the bruises? Were there any witnesses? Talking about concealed violence can be so traumatizing that the injured may adopt secrecy as a coping mechanism of their own, denying or hiding the violence being done to them. It’s easier to suffer, they reason, than to try to explain. I don’t know why he acts that way. Yes, I’ve told him to stop. We didn’t say anything because we were afraid.
Look at Nate Jackson. He has a near-photographic memory of every injury he sustained as a professional football player—and why wouldn’t he? He was there for all of them. In some cases, he was the only person who knew about them, because he didn’t report them—the hamstring pulls, the shoulder re-injuries. Why didn’t he tell anyone? Was he afraid of ending his career? Of letting down his teammates?
After all, this is a grown man we’re talking about—a celebrity, highly skilled and well paid, with advisors and autonomy and all kinds of privilege. And yet for many years he remained enmeshed in that web of secrecy and abuse. Can you imagine how much tougher it is for a single mother, an undocumented alien, or a child to escape hidden violence?
When we insist on transparency—particularly from our authority figures—we make it a little harder for violence to take root. When we listen to those who break the code of silence, we make it a little easier for others to speak up.
And thus my school’s insistence on transparency, and our mission of empowering people to speak as well as to fight. Because power can transform us, but if we lie about our use of it, we may reach a point where we no longer even know ourselves.