JOHN RIORDAN: Dolphins’ big men cross offensive line

Monday Night Football has been a cornerstone of American television since its inception on ABC in the 1970s.

It has since moved to ABC’s corporate brothers at ESPN (siblings at the Disney corporation) and retains a place in the nation’s psyche as must-see TV, although not quite the street-emptying phenomenon it was in the early days.

But as much as you could feel sympathy for a billion-dollar-generating behemoth like ESPN, the huge fee they paid for the sole rights to those 17 games a season has been looking like a comically bad deal of late.

Not only have the games been terrible but even the prospect of those games couldn’t — with a straight face — drum up anything like the publicity normally reserved for prime time sporting events.

ESPN executives must have sat around their bland corporate table at some stage last month looking at this week’s match-up with a mixture of dread and gallows humour.

Who in their right mind would sit down to watch the crashing Miami Dolphins take on the already crashed-and-burned Tampa Bay Buccaneers?

But then, on October 28, a bomb hit a league already shell-shocked — if you’ll excuse the pun — by the concussion controversy. Now thrown into the volatile brand-threatening mix are accusations of bullying and vexing issues about race and the “culture of the NFL locker room”.

The whole sorry mess has been veering between fascinating modern fable and complete waste of time since it emerged just over a fortnight ago that a Miami Dolphins player, Jonathan Martin, had quit the team over an incident which left him unable to take it any more.

A carefully organised (and apparently oft-repeated) prank saw his fellow offensive line team-mates leave a meal table in unison as he sat down with his food. He tossed his meal away and stormed out of his promising career.

The offensive line are the big guys with the big jobs. The five of them must use their barely believable mass in unison with whatever agility and flexibility they have left in their ankles to keep defenders from maiming their quarterback. It’s a brutal job and a tight fraternity.

When another Dolphins offensive lineman, Richie Incognito, was booted out of the team in subsequent days, the story began to simultaneously unravel and become even more confusing.

Rapidly, the white Incognito was portrayed as a racist bully with the worst of ‘meathead’ attributes. A transcript of a voicemail he left for Martin in which he threatened him and his family and called the young player a “half-n*****” seemed to be the nail in his coffin.

It sparked an interesting if slightly overwrought debate about the pros and cons of transposing the innate aggression of the game into the everyday interactions of team-mates. Initiation and hazing are traditional features of the NFL, though not confined to just football, but where was the line? Martin was apparently a sitting duck when he arrived as a rookie in 2012. He was slightly introspective, a little too intellectual courtesy of his parents and his Stanford University football scholarship and therefore much too sensitive to the petty injustices dished out by bored big men looking to assert their authority while also building a unit capable of withstanding pressure at the front line of a tough sport.

While Martin has gone to ground apart from one statement from his lawyer and an appointment with Dolphins owner Stephen Ross later today, Incognito finally gave Fox an interview this past weekend in which he defended his use of emotive language as just the way it is, a point which many NFL players — black and white — have hastened to agree with.

But something feels undeniably foul and no amount of sensitivity to political correctness can excuse it, a point best expressed by former Denver and Baltimore tight end Shannon Sharpe, now a studio analyst with Fox.

“If you allow Richie Incognito to walk around in an open locker room and to use a racial epithet that most black Americans — all black Americans know the stigmatism and the hate and the vitriol that comes with that word — if you allow him to do that, you are encouraging him to do that… some black players said Richie Incognito was an honorary black. There’s no such thing…

“If you don’t understand it... just ask your parents, ask your grandparents, the mountain they climbed so a black person in America can have respect, can have dignity, and you allow this in an open locker room, unacceptable.”

The debate will rage on and I can’t imagine how galling it must be for players to have their dressing room sanctuary invaded by society’s bullying phobias.

But it will be a small price to pay to ensure those large cheques keep coming.

* Twitter: JohnWRiordan


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