The NFL routinely, and somewhat inadvertently, challenges our collective system of values.
Week after week, game after game, we resoundingly cheer on aggression and power. We laud our favorite team when it exudes physical, mental and organizational supremacy. We boo it when it tries but fails.
Off the field, it's not that simple. We treat NFL players like warriors and gladiators when in the game, but as soon as the final whistle blows, we expect—no, demand—they assimilate back to our traditional social constructs.
See that field with painted boundaries? Go over there and be a savage. Put on this armor and do whatever you can to thwart the invaders from another city. You have three hours, and maybe a little extra time if a winner of that battle has yet to be determined.
As soon a winner is decided, however, we demand you go back to being just like one of us. In fact, you have to be better than us, because your life both on and off that battlefield is in the spotlight all the time.
When Jonathan Martin first disappeared from the Miami Dolphins organization, there was wild speculation about the reason, much of which predicated on questioning his mental fortitude.
As we learned more about the situation involving Richie Incognito, with ritualized hazing extending to the realm of bullying, many people chided Incognito for stepping over the line, going too far, breaking the social code and whatever other disapproving cliché one might think to use for a heinous situation like this.
With that admonition, as well as the accompanying hand wringing about bullying in society and how it translates to the NFL, came the backlash from those on the other side of the argument. Several people felt that public sentiment was being too hard on Incognito. After all, he's a gladiator. A warrior. He is paid a king's ransom to exert his might on any perceived threat to his team's success, even, in some extreme cases, if that threat lies within his own ranks.
Some feel that, despite an overtly racist term and threatening language being used on a voice mail to Martin, Incognito is being made into a villain without the proper context and understanding of the relationship between the two players.
Some feel that what happens in the locker room is between those who share that space, and that mentality extends beyond the physical walls to permeate the very fibers that hold the team together. The locker room is football's answer to Las Vegas. Things happen there and they stay there no matter what.
Others don't agree. Others feel that what happens in a workplace must be held to a minimal standard of conduct, where bullying, threats, racism and taking people's money is not OK, no matter what the job description.
It's all a bit confusing, isn't it?
Numerous Dolphins players come out in defense of Incognito, while former teammates admonished him for being a jerk who routinely took things too far.
Some people blasted the Miami Dolphins organization for letting this situation get as far as it has, while others defended the coaching staff, suggesting this was merely a locker room incident falling outside the purview of those in charge.
Still others, including former Dolphins players, took this as an opportunity to openly rip general manager Jeff Ireland for creating, fostering and perhaps even promoting a culture of aggression and violence, while some current Dolphins players questioned if they could ever play with Martin again, not Incognito.
It's all a bit confusing. The players don't even know which side to take. Hell, Warren Sapp told Dan Patrick this week that Incognito called him a racist name during a game and the pullback to that is Keyshawn Johnson saying that Sapp bullied a player when they were all in Tampa Bay.
Hazing has gone on for years in the NFL—in all sports—and while that doesn’t justify malicious bullying under a protected covering of a "hazing" ritual, it does present one minute facet of a vastly different work environment to what the rest of us deal with on a daily basis.
The locker room is just different from the rest of the world. Football is just different. That doesn't make what happens right, but it's hard to place our societal norms and rational judgment into that space. It's not the same environment, so it is incredibly challenging to extend unilateral morality to a foreign setting.
Moreover, we can't ask someone to act a certain way during the game when it benefits our rooting interest, then admonish him for acting the same way when it's over. I mean, sure, we can ask them, but we shouldn't expect them to even remotely know how to do it.
Football players and—to some extent—all athletes at the highest levels are wired differently. They process things in a different way than most of us. They handle physical and mental pain differently. This isn't suggesting one way is better than the other. It's just different.
Football players strap on layers of padding and slip their skulls into a plastic and foam case before using their bodies as a form of weaponry, knowing full well the next hit they take could be their last. Maybe they didn't in the past, but today's players are well-aware that all the technology in the world can't protect them.
Those helmets? They cannot protect them. But they all strap them on anyway.
I don't care how good I am at this, if I was told that the next column I write could paralyze me if I punctuate a sentence wrong, I'd find another line of work.
That's how fine the line is between a successful player in the NFL and a career coming to a halt. The difference is measured in millimeters.
And every day they practice and every week they fight until one team is crowned a champion—and then again, they spend months and months preparing for battle after battle year after year until every war is won. And before they die, they count up the trophies, the accolades, the bodies. And those with the highest total are enshrined in history, immortalized as the greatest of the great. The most heroic of the heroes.
It takes a different kind of person to understand that; to put oneself through that mental and physical rigor.
That's not normal.
They…aren't normal. But they have to be.
Some societal norms must apply to professional athletes. They cannot do drugs or drink and drive. They cannot shoot guns at people or assault women. They cannot fight with the police or resist arrest.
They must be real people sometimes, even if everything we ask of them professionally goes against that.
They are indestructible. Until they aren't. They are warriors, until they cross the line.
Did Incognito cross the line? The answer depends on where your line is. For many of us, it changes by the day.