Three teams worked out Richie Incognito during the 2014 NFL season. They probably could have used him, both because Incognito had by then become a pretty good NFL guard after an early career marked by bad penalties and bullshit and because teams wouldn’t invite a player in for a workout if they didn’t think he might be better than the players they already had. Incognito probably was better, but all three teams finally thought better of signing someone who had been suspended and released in 2013 after it was revealed that he had systematically and brutally bullied a host of coworkers for years.
Incognito had played parts of nine very eventful seasons in the NFL by then. He had been selected for one Pro Bowl—he’d go on to make three more—and topped a Sporting News Dirtiest Player In The NFL poll; he’d been released in the middle of a season by two different losing teams for being an out-of-control menace, and been the subject of a fawning NFL.com feature that painted him as a changed man because he’d stopped committing personal fouls at such a high rate; he’d received a Nice Guy Award from Miami sports media for being cooperative and available and been seen on TV screaming at his head coach after being benched for picking up a pair of headbutt-related penalties in the first half of a 40-point loss.
“There is the 90 to 95 percent of Richie that is outstanding,” said Billy Devaney, who was the GM of the St. Louis Rams during the four years in which Incognito committed a team-high 38 penalties. “It’s the other 5 or 10 when the dark Richie kicks in.” There was room for disagreement about those percentages, but NFL teams knew who and what Richie Incognito was years before the stories of him “breaking” teammate Jonathan Martin under an unrelenting torrent of emotional and physical assaults and racist and homophobic slurs became public.
It was that knowledge, as much as Incognito’s intermittently strong play, that led Rex Ryan to identify Incognito as a “high-priority acquisition” when he took over the Buffalo Bills in 2015. “We’re going to build a bully,” Ryan said at his introductory press conference; he signed Incognito shortly after. While Ryan later clarified that he wanted to limit his team’s bullying to opposing teams—“I’m about the biggest anti-bullying guy there is,” Ryan told a local radio station, “especially off the field and in the community”—he didn’t back off the statement. “[It] might not sound politically correct,” NFL Media’s Kimberly Jones said of Ryan’s statement after the Incognito signing, “but Rex Ryan wants to win and he knows the Bills have to toughen up, if you will, to get winning done in Buffalo.” The “if you will” is there because “toughen up” was the phrase that Dolphins coaches used when they sicced Incognito on Martin.
It’s one of the few undeniable successes of Ryan’s brief and blundering tenure in Buffalo that he succeeded in building a bully, at least in the sense that his team committed the most penalties in the NFL during his first season on the job while being otherwise exactly as mediocre as their 8-8 record suggested; he was fired after Week 16 of his second season on the job. Incognito was gone after the next season, retiring after the first playoff game of his NFL career. At the time, Incognito told the Buffalo News that his kidneys and liver were “shutting down” because of “the stress.”
The first year of Incognito’s retirement was marked by erratic and threatening behavior. These was not the old shirtless barroom rages of his Dolphins years but stuff that suggested serious distress—telling the police that he was “running NSA class level 3 documents through my phone” when they showed up to stop him from assaulting a stranger at a gym, showing up at an Arizona funeral home with a half-dozen guns in his truck and threatening employees after they refused to honor his request that they cut off his late father’s head “for research purposes.” Last Tuesday, Incognito signed a one-year contract with the Oakland Raiders. He was taking reps with the first team by week’s end.
To a certain extent, this is the same arbitrage play that the Raiders made in signing the former Bengals linebacker and serial headhunter Vontaze Burfict, about whom new GM Mike Mayock said, before the 2012 NFL Draft, “I think he’s a nondraftable kid.” In both cases, the team bought low on a recently useful player who they believed was undervalued for one reason or another. In the case of both Incognito and Burfict, that mitigating factor could be described as “repeated violent sociopathy,” but this is the NFL and it’s a business and “at the end of the day,” Mayock said after signing Incognito, “you can’t have all boy scouts.”
There’s nothing surprising about an NFL team turning to a troubled bully like Incognito as a business decision. The strange part is how sincerely they seem to have misunderstood what bullies do, and who they are.
Violence is what makes football go; each play, at its elemental level, is decided by a series of binary battles, all of which play out through the application of violence under the game’s constellation of rules. Every play is a fight, with a winner and a loser; this all goes on churning until the whistle blows, over and over, until time expires. Teams win games by winning enough of those fights.
From a sufficient distance, this can be beautiful—a design and its execution and an outcome that is the sum of every component outcome in every play. The result is there to see on the field and on the scoreboard, but also there’s inherently too much going on for it all to be controlled. Closer in, the work is desperate and urgent, and much narrower, and not beautiful at all.
When Tim Keown wrote an impossibly overdetermined appreciation of Incognito for ESPN The Magazine in 2016, he focused on that: the dirty work that Incognito does, and the special difficulty and dignity of that labor, and (this was the overdetermined part) the dignity that difficult work reflected back on Incognito, despite him being such an aggressively unpleasant person. Keown’s idea was that maybe it takes someone like Incognito to do work like this, and that the ways in which Incognito was weak—his abject inability to control himself or his emotions, the quickness with which he so reliably reverts and resorts to wild childishness—were actually strengths, and that his obvious screaming failings were really gifts that made him different and special.
Keown wrote about Incognito, who refused to talk to him for the story and jeered him every time he came around the locker room, as if Incognito were a god of war, which is hardly a new way to lionize and dehumanize a football player. The NFL has sold football as a shelf-stable retail version of war for generations, and it’s hard to imagine the league ever settling on a more compelling pitch. Humanity has only ever come up with so many ways to justify the fact that people admire and enjoy things that we’re taught should be abhorred, and squaring all these contradictions is not just a problem for Rex Ryan, or football. American culture admires bullies more than it dares let on, primarily because Americans are much closer to the edge than they dare admit.
It’s not that the culture conditions people to want to be bullies. Bullies are inherently out of control and incapable of actual command; bullying is very clearly an attempt to deny or conceal that. This is almost always obvious, but also the violence concealing the bully’s heedless spinning precariousness can look like dominance in a pinch. Desperation makes people stupid, but mostly it makes them desperate. Even a cheesy sham version of dominance is preferable to any whiff of weakness. Narrow this all down to a binary and the choice is clear: would you rather be the bully, or be bullied?
But this is just a momentary thing. Of all the things that are known about bullies and bullying, the most important are the ones that Rex Ryan lost in building his lousy penalty-prone bully of a team, and which Gruden and Mayock are ignoring in their attempt to imagineer a football team out of Edge and archetype and soggy television mythos. It’s a mistake to confuse a bully’s aggression for toughness, or his clammy playing at dominance for actual strength. They’re not the same at all, and reveal themselves to be less alike the longer you look. It’s a con, and a bully/victim binary is finally just a matter of two unhappy people.
A bully knows that he’ll be found out, that it can’t go on like this precisely because the command and mastery that could make his dominance last are nowhere to be found under all the blustering show; a bully knows that there is nothing holding any of this up. This is why he fights. You would have to be desperate (or lazy, or afraid) to fall for this, just as you would have to be to choose it. You would have to want to believe any easy lie over every more challenging truth; you would have to believe that cruelty and violence are the same thing as strength.
They’re not, and that lie cannot hold up. It’s not built for that. A bully tells it, and then has to tell it again. The stress of it is crushing; there’s nothing that can make it work. It’s still easier than the truth.