Is Richie Incognito the One Getting Bullied?

If you’ve never made a terrible comment to a friend in jest your entire life, you might be tied for the most boring person on earth.

To hear Richie Incognito’s teammates describe him, the embattled Dolphins offensive lineman accused of violent, racist bullying is actually a prince.

Following the release of voicemails containing racially-charged language that he left teammate Jonathan Martin before Martin walked off the team, Incognito has been suspended by the Dolphins, hounded nonstop by reporters and made a poster man-child for ogreish intolerance in all its forms. But other players — even those on different teams — are coming forward not only to condemn Martin’s actions, but to defend Incognito’s.

Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill told reporters yesterday, “If you asked Jonathan Martin who his best friend is on this team two weeks ago, he’d say Richie Incognito… It’s tough for us to sit here and hear all that.”

Wide receiver Brian Hartline chimed about Martin, “If I’m not mistaken, this is the same guy that was laughing about this voicemail at one point in time.”

Former offensive line mate Lydon Murtha said in an op-ed today, “Richie has been more kind to Martin than any other player.”

Fine, Incognito’s white teammates are behind him. But what about the attitudes of black players, who comprise at least 65 percent of the NFL?

“I don’t have a problem with Richie. I love Richie,” said wide receiver Mike Wallace, who’s black.

“Richie Incognito isn’t a racist,” said tight end Michael Egnew, also black.

“We joke with each other. You can’t have thin skin around here,” said Dolphins defensive tackle Randy Starks. “We’re trying to clear Richie’s name. He’s getting a bad rap.” Black.

But that doesn’t fit so neatly within the narrative being woven by detractors, many of whom are simply re-litigating high school. If this language is OK on a Comedy Central roast, why is it anathema in an NFL locker room?

Context matters here. It’s why Greg Giraldo could get away with comparing Warren Sapp to a giant ape and how Louis CK can acceptably call an audience member a “faggot.” The use of offensive language doesn’t, in and of itself, necessarily constitute offensiveness.

If, during an interview with a magazine that’s profiling you, you liken taking New York’s 7 train to “riding through Beirut next to… some queer with AIDS,” the way former Braves pitcher John Rocker did in a comment to Sports Illustrated in 1999, you might be a homophobe.

And if you’re caught candidly on video exclaiming, “I will jump that fence and fight every nigger here,” as Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper did at a concert last summer, you might be a racist.

But if you drop the N bomb in a locker room packed with hormonal, post-graduate 300-pound rage whales who spend 27 hours a day bonding under the most grueling physical punishment imaginable, you might be a team leader. It’s a characterization that many players — white and black — have used to describe Incognito, demonstrating that the community standards forged in competitive athletics don’t apply elsewhere, just as the cautious diplomacy of a Planned Parenthood summit has no place in a training room.

The co-optation of harsh language and symbols can bleed them of their power to oppress. Employing words and emblems that are otherwise divisive — like the use of the N word by some in the black community and the dizzying adoption of the rebel flag by Kanye West — can be expropriated to break down barriers between members of a community. It’s unity by shared dehumanization that appears understandably bizarre to the uninitiated.

But it requires all within that community to be on board, something that evidently could not be said for Jonathan Martin. Those who’ve beheld the cinematic triumph that is The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift are familiar with the Japanese proverb “The protruding nail will get hammered down,” which refers to those unwilling to follow the rules of a society. While it doesn’t seem like context should matter as it regards use of the N word, NFL teams are their own communities with their own standards.

Rocker and Riley looked awfully lonely throughout their respective controversies because no one publicly stands up in support of bigots unless they already have an endorsement deal with Paula Deen. There’s no mistaking the angry, kneejerk ravings of an intolerant a-hole, but it doesn’t look like that’s what Incognito’s comments represent. If you’ve never made a terrible comment to a friend in jest your entire life, you might be tied for the most boring person on earth.

That’s not to say that Incognito isn’t probably a dipshit. But he doesn’t deserve the lifelong branding of a bigot that he’s destined to carry as a result of this story.

Former Dolphins running back Ricky Williams was asked to weigh in and his answer, while not the most profound of prose, encapsulates the issue — and how it should have been handled — perfectly.

“If someone sent me those messages, I would send a text back and call him a redneck and put ‘LOL.’”

Ah, go on and treat yourself, Ricky. Splurge on “cracker-ass cracker.”