Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Diversity Doesn’t Always Look Different

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In my last post, I talked about the bullying that went on between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. The two men play football for the Miami Dolphins…or rather, they did. Martin left the team as a result of what he termed “harassment” and the Dolphins have suspended Incognito indefinitely for conduct detrimental to the team. They reportedly plan to cut ties with him.

It’s come out in the last couple of days that Incognito might have been given instructions from the Miami coaching staff to “toughen up” Martin. Martin grew up in a well-off household and went to Stanford, which doesn’t cut athletes too many breaks on GPA and academic performance. He’s quiet and thoughtful. Incognito, on the other hand, is a brasher, tougher person who didn’t grow up in the nice part of town.

Martin is black and Incognito is white, but there’s an interesting racial dynamic to the situation. On the November 6 episode of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, Michael Wilbon, who is black, pointed out that there’s an ongoing conversation in the community about what it means to be black. That conversation takes on a special meaning in the context of the super-macho NFL. According to media reports on ESPN’s web site and Wilbon’s commentary on PTI, Incognito is considered an “honorary” black person who could use the n-word casually in the locker room without offense. In fact, again according to Wilbon, Incognito was seen as “blacker” than Martin because Incognito’s behavior fit into the team’s cognitive model of what an NFL, and more specifically a black NFL player, should be like.

And that’s where the problem lies: the stereotype of how an NFL player should act. A thoughtful, sensitive, introverted person like Martin plays the game differently than his teammates. Maybe he’s not as forceful as his fellow linemen, but he wasn’t voted the second dirtiest player in the league like Incognito was, either. The stereotypical means of “toughening up” a player drove Martin from the team and to document his teammate’s behavior. Veteran Dolphin players have backed Incognito’s actions, calling him Martin’s “big brother” and characterized him as a person who always had Martin’s back. By contrast, when asked if Martin would be welcome in the Dolphins locker room, most players declined to answer.

I have to admit I have a lot more sympathy for Incognito than I did after I first heard about his conduct. Rather than acting as a rogue agent, he appears to have behaved in a manner consistent with the team’s culture. Whether that behavior is “right” or “legal” is up for discussion.

It’ll be interesting to see how this situation shakes out. I characterized the issue as one of diversity in the post’s title, pointing to the difference in cognitive style, personality, and approach Martin takes to life and the game. He’s a minority within the NFL, so there’s a question of whether he and (presumably) his attorney choose to make a hostile work environment claim based in whole or part on his status. Certainly the allegations in the case point to consistent behavior that might be contrary to the law, but I’m not a lawyer. I have a feeling we’ll all learn more about it in the coming months.

Finally, let me conclude with something that, thankfully, doesn’t apply to anyone with whom I currently work: If you think I need toughening up, you’re welcome to try it. I will become more aggressive, but it’ll be in your direction. I do what I do and I’m good at it. My approach works for me. If you think I’m doing it wrong, that’s your problem, not mine. Maybe you screwed up when you hired me.

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