My left elbow aches and my neck creaks. My shoulders don't feel quite right and my back hurts. I was a football player. I played for a small private school in a league of small private schools. I worked hard to be able to play well, devoting two to three hours a day year round to practice, all to be able to play a handful of games that lasted barely three hours each. I was good but not great and I absolutely loved it.
Though I have not put the pads on in 20 years, I recognize the ways that playing the game helped me become me. It taught me to be in touch with my body and mind at the same time, to work as part of a team and to trust others. I learned how to be a reflective practitioner, taking apart my performance both in the moment and after the fact, all in order to continue to improve. Playing football made me an introspective and contemplative person. My coach taught me to meditate and meditation taught me to pray. And so, in many ways I am still a football player.
And so as I, like so many sports fans have been reading with rapt attention the story of Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito, two players on the Miami Dolphins, my heart has been breaking. Martin spent his short tenure in the NFL playing next to Incognito and being repeatedly bullied by him. The quotes of some of Incognito’s teasing leave me raw:
"Hey, wassup, you half n----- piece of s---. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] s--- in your f---ing mouth. [I'm going to] slap your f---ing mouth. [I'm going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. F--- you, you're still a rookie. I'll kill you." - Richie Incognito voicemail left for Jonathan Martin, as quoted by ESPN.
The story spoke to me right away, I was a lineman too.
Martin felt terrorized to the point that right in the middle of the season he left the team to tend to his emotional trauma. As the reasons for his departure came to light, Incognito was suspended. Many in the media have taken to this story, calling out the league and the game itself for a “warrior” culture of “manliness” that encourages hazing and bullying, that is so accustomed to injuries of the body but wholly unprepared for injuries of the heart.
On his Twitter feed Incognito recently posted the following: “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth. Buddha.” Apparently there is some “truth” out there that is hidden now, soon to be revealed. I may be wrong, please G-d let me be wrong, but I bet that “truth” is that he “truly” believes that he did not do anything wrong.
And why would he? Despite the public outcry, players such as teammate Mike Wallace have come to Incognito’s defense; “I love Richie. I personally think he's a great guy. He's an intense guy. Everybody knows that. I don't feel like he did anything that he wouldn't do on a regular basis. I don't think he was out of hand. I think he was just being Richie.”
“Hey, wassup, you half n----- piece of s---.” Just Richie being Richie?
The Psalmist said: There is no Shalom (peace) in my bones because of my sin; for my iniquities have gone over my head, a heavy burden, they are too much for me. (Psalms 38:4-5)
About this verse, Rabbi Shmuel Bournsztain in his Shem Mishmuel said: “any person who is truly righteous will find in himself many sins, but a wicked person will see all his actions as proper, and feel as if at peace.” The idea here being that a righteous person is fundamentally never satisfied, that there is always room for improvement, for growth. We are all flawed, and only grow through thorough self-reflection.
The game that I played and loved was a game the Psalmist would appreciate, a game that taught me there was always room for growth, always a way to improve. It taught me that I was fallible, and to own up to my mistakes. What does it say about the world we live in that Richie Incognito could speak and act toward Jonathan Martin in the way he did and truly believe he did no wrong? Incognito’s training as a football player should be forcing him to go back to the “film room” as it were, to listen to the voicemails he left Martin and critique his performance.
The Shem Mishmuel reminds us that it is precisely when we are most sure of ourselves that we should search out our iniquities. That if we are so comfortable and confident that we can do no wrong, we are almost certainly doing something wrong. We have a responsibility to ourselves, to each other and to our Creator to leave such hubris behind.
Rabbi Jonah Geffen is the Rabbinic Director at J Street. Follow him on Twitter @JonahGeffen.