The continuing saga and emerging details raise even more head-scratching questions. For instance, the outsider may ask why Incognito – a man at the height of his profession, having made the 2012 Pro Bowl, respected by his peers enough to be on the Miami Dolphin’s player leadership council, co-winner of the Pro Football Writers Association of South Florida’s “Good Guy Award,” intelligent enough to be part of the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program (co-taught by Harvard and Northwestern University no less!), and earning a reported base salary of $4 million for 2012 – would engage in what is apparently reprehensible behavior.
Perhaps more disturbing to outsiders are the revelations that Incognito’s teammates are siding with him publicly over the obviously aggrieved Martin, even as management has visibly distanced themselves. The question is: are these players lining up behind one of their own, arguably their leader, Richie Incognito, or are they covering their own behinds?
The more evidence that comes to light, the more it appears these players are complicit in the bullying of second-year pro Martin. Indeed, some may argue Martin was complicit in his own bullying by initially laughing off the attacks on him. It’s all so… confusing! What’s an evolutionary-minded thinker to do?
Immediately, two questions come to mind: Why does leadership go bad? And why do people follow bad leaders, even when they know they’re pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior? In other words, why would Richie Incognito turn to bullying of such an extreme nature? And why would Dolphins of all stripes follow this aberrant porpoise?
Perhaps the best way to approach this is to understand men in groups, and these groups in team sports. Team sports, such as football and rugby (as well as such lesser team sports as soccer, cricket, and baseball) are premised upon group cohesion. In other words, the successful team is a band of brothers. And to beat other bands of brothers, especially at the highest level, means finding any edge possible.
Whether this edge is performance enhancing drugs, extreme training and nutrition, sports psychology, or paying the head coach more than the combined salaries of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, players, coaches, and fans are willing to pay that price (although the taxpayers footing the stadium bills may not be so willing). However, individual talent can go only so far when on any given Sunday, the talent across from you can match you and beat you.
That’s when the power of team camaraderie steps in. The team that plays as one cohesive unit will oftentimes beat the team that doesn’t have the same tight connection. This may even be the case when a team’s competition has superior talent, because we all know there is no “I” in team (although there is a “me” and “meat”... but that’s another blog post).
So what can teams do to increase their cohesion? Probably just what Richie Incognito made his teammates do – laugh together. The social contagion of laughter is a powerful force for connecting people together; people who laugh together share their emotions, they share their sense of humor, and they share their values. They also bond behind their leader, in this case Incognito, when that leader tells the joke. But let’s get to that later.
The laughter of groups matters because individuals laughing together become more connected with each other as a result. Many social species laugh: rats laugh, dogs laugh, primates – especially humans – laugh, even dolphins laugh (no word on Vikings – they’re having a terrible year!).
Laughter is a coordinated and contagious social response that brings individuals together, but at the same time can unite them against the target of the humor. In a sense, it can be a form of “mobbing” seen in many smaller animals and birds (Ravens and Seahawks?), and can be an aggressive, yet socially acceptable, response to individuals not meeting group expectations – as appears to be the case with Jonathan Martin.
The importance of the rough camaraderie of teammates in the locker room or on the field before and after games cannot be overstated. In my experience, humor is extremely important for bringing players together, slackers into the fold, and reducing tension before big games. During the eight years I was assistant rugby coach at Arkansas State University (1999-2007), our team played in the national Division 2 collegiate championship game three times. The first time, when all of us were joking, laughing and loose, we won; the next two championship games, when we were serious, sober-minded and obsessing on the match in front of us, we played well below our potential and lost both times.
Although humor is a glue for teams, when men get together this humor can be very “raw” as it often makes fun of bad decisions, exposes weaknesses, and infringes on social norms including traditionally uncomfortable and politically incorrect topics of ethnicity and sexuality. The nicknames alone can be brutal and humbling, subtly reminding men of their place in the hierarchy well after it was earned (please don’t ask me why some of my friends call me “Hammerhead”!).
Because sports are about pushing the boundaries, it isn’t unexpected that the benign violations of social code verge on appearing malicious to outsiders, but are uproarious to those “in the know.” Indeed, from the outside, some of the humor is extreme and/or obscure, and as a result unintelligible or infuriating to outsiders.
In a very real sense, the humor is encrypted, which makes the joke funnier by keeping the humor and the laughter to the in-group, but at the same time it ensures shared knowledge by keeping the humor within a brotherhood that transcends the ethnicity, social class, and hopefully someday soon, the sexuality that gets made fun of.
And it looks like Richie Incognito knew how to make his teammates laugh, with apparently the exception of Jonathan Martin. As a respected locker room leader, his followers on the team were more likely to laugh at his jokes, just like we tend to be more likely to laugh at the humor of our leaders, whether in the workplace, classroom, or in politics.
And by laughing at his jokes, regardless of how malicious, Incognito’s teammates became co-conspirators in a manner reminiscent of the Milgram experiments. This may be due to the nature of football, a sport with strong hierarchical overtones as the players engage in scripted, coordinated activities and follow the lead of their head coach and their starting quarterback. And this is reflected in the humor used, which in hierarchical, authoritarian settings focuses on ridicule to keep followers in line; on the other hand, when self-deprecatory humor is regularly used, a more egalitarian mindset likely dominates.
For the roughly 30% of individuals who are predisposed to be subservient to authority, toeing the line and respecting authority, whether it be the head coach, the quarterback, or the unit leader, in this case Richie Incognito, football is a dream sport. For those free spirits that cannot or will not fall in line, offensive or not, it’s best to try another sport (such as rugby!). However, if the rewards are too great, the options are to suffer in silence and hope to weather the storm, or possibly have a break down, presumably like Jonathan Martin, who likely thought it was not just him versus Incognito, but also all Incognito’s friends and followers in the locker room.
But enough of blaming the victim – as that is way too easy, and doesn’t help us understand how the saga began, and how to fix and/or avoid situations like this in the future. The problem is, Incognito stepped over the line with his humor, or perhaps more likely, didn’t even know where that line was in the first place. He even admitted so in a recent television interview, saying he took things too far, was too vulgar, and is embarrassed by his actions.
Taking things too far can often be the case with leaders (as Gregg notes in a series of posts on politicians' sexual misbehavior: "Sexcapades at City Hall," "Re-electing Rascals," and "Male Politicians and Sexual Misbehavior"), and without proper oversight they can step over the social and moral boundaries as if they didn’t exist in the first place. And given the amount of power and adulation an NFL player receives, it is no surprise that Incognito – after almost a decade of playing – pushed well beyond the lines of common decency, and has been called for infringement.
And perhaps more distressing, his behavior may have been encouraged by the upper echelons of the Dolphins organization. As followers, whether players, fans, voters/taxpayers, or just interested bystanders, it is up to us to hold our leaders to higher standards and teach our children that courage comes in many different forms and can mean either holding the line or breaking through it.
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For more information, see:
Hibbing, J. R., Smith, K. B., & Alford, J. R. (2013). Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences. Routledge.
Stewart, P. A. (2011). The influence of self-and other-deprecatory humor on presidential candidate evaluation during the 2008 US election. Social Science Information, 50(2), 201-222.
Stewart, P. A. (2012). Debatable Humor: Laughing Matters on the 2008 Presidential Primary Campaign. Lexington Books.
Van Vugt, M., & Ahuja, A. (2010). Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership. HarperBusiness.
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