Richie Incognito, the big Buffalo Bills guard whose name you most likely recognize for its association with him being about as awful as a person can be, is still the same guy he’s always been. He’s the guy who called former teammate Jonathan Martin a “half-nigger piece of shit”; who settled a civil suit with a woman who accused him of sexually assaulting her at a golf course; and has long been considered one of the dirtiest players in the NFL. Incognito, perhaps to his credit, doesn’t seem all that interested in convincing anyone he’s become a better person since his repeated bullying of Martin got him suspended for eight games in 2013. Neither, it seems, does ESPN’s Tim Keown, who published a long story about Incognito that appears to be less interested in redeeming Incognito than in revering him for who he is.
The premise of Keown’s story is simple, and revolves around an idea that is about as conventional as football wisdom gets. The premise here is that Richie Incognito may be a Bad Dude, but that in the violent, combative sport of football, it is often beneficial to have a Bad Dude on your team. How many times have you seen a rough-around-the-edges football player described as a “guy you hate when he’s on the other team but love when he’s on your team”? You get two guesses as to whether Incognito is described in such a way at any point in Keown’s piece.
It all builds up to something of an unbelievable kicker, which I think speaks for itself:
It’s the tribal way. The Iroquois Nation elected civil leaders to conduct affairs during peacetime. When war broke out, however, wartime leaders took control to ensure the survival of the tribe. In the tribal world of the NFL, Incognito would be a wartime leader. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say this: Richie Incognito would not be trusted with peace.
The archetype Incognito is meant to represent in this piece isn’t novel, and that leaves the question of why the piece exists at all. Perhaps Incognito is a particularly effective incarnation of the Bad Dude who galvanizes and inspires his teammates, and is thus worth remarking upon? That can be tested by the story: Keown seeks out Incognito’s teammates in order to suss out exactly what kind of impact he’s had on the team.
Little-used wide receiver Walter Powell had this to say about his teammate:
“If he was on the other side, I’d hate him,” Powell says. “But I’d love him at the same time. He’s the type of dude who has a tough-guy side that you need in a locker room.”
Right guard John Miller mentioned that he and Incognito, who supports Donald Trump, disagree on politics, but offered an endorsement similar to Powell’s:
“He’s a guy who’s accountable,” guard John Miller says. “You have to admire someone who’s willing to take up for his teammates. Every team needs one of them.”
Here’s quarterback Tyrod Taylor answering a question about what he and Incognito talk about:
“Strictly football.” He begins to laugh. It starts as a chuckle and accelerates from there. “Strictly football,” he says, walking away, his laughter echoing off the locker stalls.
And here is lineman Ryan Groy discussing a Week 7 game in which Incognito ripped the helmet from an opponent’s head and flung it down the field:
“I guess there are times when things get under your skin,” Groy says. “I kind of laughed under my breath when it happened. I definitely would have handled it differently, but I’m not Richie.”
And here is fellow offensive lineman Eric Wood:
“Richie’s crossed the line at times,” says Wood, who is one of Incognito’s closest friends and was a teammate during Incognito’s three-game stint with the Bills in 2009. “And he knows he’s crossed the line. You’ve got to be very careful. Me and him are constantly making fun of each other, but there are times and people you can’t do that kind of stuff with.”
Separated from a piece in which Incognito is likened to an Iroquois warlord leading his people into battle, none of these quotes from Incognito’s teammates come off as ringing endorsements of Incognito as a player, person, or especially effective incarnation of the archetype he is (so far as the reader can tell) meant to incarnate; if anything, these quotes come off as fairly dismissive. This isn’t to say that Keown’s story lacks for adulation of Incognito; it’s just that most of the praise comes directly from the writer.
There are multiple moments in the piece in which Keown’s attitude toward Incognito can most charitably be described as “fawning.” For example, here is Keown being sent aflutter by the sight of Incognito sprinting:
Watching that keg of a body putting every ounce of effort into something as silly as catching a pass after stretching, you remind yourself: This is a 33-year-old man. It’s simultaneously comical and endearing, but what’s clear is that he cares. His reputation is well established — Incognito is abrasive and loud and profane and abusive, perceived as the epitome of the maladjusted football player. But caring this much eventually becomes its own absolution.
Here he is marveling at Incognito’s drill work:
What’s most striking about Incognito is the level of sheer earnestness. The engine has no governor. He attacks every drill with the choppy steps vital to his profession. Legs underneath him to maximize balance and force, his feet constantly moving, his head up, he’s every offensive line coach’s Platonic fantasy. That’s the message: It means so damned much to this guy. Like, all of it — even the stupid stuff. You think coaches don’t love that? You think teammates don’t get an extra boost just watching it? How many thousands of times do you think he’s hit a sled? How many times has he gotten down in a three-point stance and fired his body into another human being? And somehow he still goes about it like a high school kid trying to impress a girl.
Here he is reading all sorts of meaning into the location of Incognito’s locker:
Not much about this room makes sense; LeSean McCoy has three pillows shoved against the wall and approximately 30 pairs of shoes on the floor. But the location of Incognito’s locker — front and center, facing the door — seems carefully considered.
And I’m not even sure how to describe this passage, other than to say this might be the first time a sports writer has ever boasted about being effectively negged by a subject:
Incognito declined to be interviewed for this story, but that doesn’t mean he refused to talk. For the better part of a week, we have an amusing back-and-forth. “Oh, hey, look who’s here,” he says with mock surprise every time he comes to his locker. We talk about wine and Buffalo cuisine and catching the first pass of every practice. But when I ask if he’s willing to reconsider his decision and consent to an interview, he says, “Nope. It’s been done so many different ways so many different times. I just don’t see the point of doing it again.” On my last day in Buffalo, he shakes my hand and says, “I hope you enjoyed Buffalo. Sorry I couldn’t help.” When I tell him I’ll see him in Seattle when the Bills play the Seahawks the following Monday night, he says, “Oh, cool. So we get to do this again?” It’s the most congenial refusal in the history of journalism.
Richie Incognito is a solid football player who is helping his team win games; that makes him indistinguishable from hundreds of other players in the NFL, none of whom have become notorious for their violent, racially-charged psychological abuse of their teammates. Keown’s piece seems set on convincing us that he is far more than an NFL player, though: It wants us to believe that Incognito is not only a useful cog in the Buffalo Bills’ offense, but a vital piece of the team’s identity, a tenacious warrior whose brutish and deplorable behavior is precisely what makes him so valuable to the team. I wasn’t convinced that this is true by the time I finished reading Keown’s piece, but I was certainly convinced that he wants me to believe it is.