Earlier this afternoon, @PFTCommenter (go follow him on Twitter if you're not already) alerted the sports world to the hottest hot take of the day, which came to us in the form of a piece written by Cathal Kelly of The Globe and Mail in Canada. Now, we're not familiar with Kelly and hadn't read any of his work prior to today, but we were most certainly intrigued by @PFTCommenter's preview of the piece:
A hot take featuring a comparison of newly-signed Bills offensive lineman Richie Incognito and—gasp—Jackie Robinson? Oh, now this is going to be good. Er, or not. Let's see.
We went and found the piece here and the title of it is "Kelly: Even Richie Incognito has a right to play." So far, so good. We don't love Incognito or some of the things that he's done away from the football field. But he paid the price for bullying Jonathan Martin during the 2013-14 NFL season by sitting out last year. So we can't knock him for getting a second chance with Buffalo.
OK, now let's start reading Kelly's piece...
One of the cultural misapprehensions of our time is in assuming sports is a moral sphere. That the things that happen within the lines of play are guided, first and foremost, by considerations of goodness or badness.
They aren’t, and thank God for that.
Sports push the boundaries of our common morality, but only because they are largely amoral. The starting point of any great cultural transformation led by sport – racial integration, gender equality, et al – is “Can he play?” Morality is subjective, but that question is ruthlessly objective. It’s either demonstrably true or false.
Kelly isn't exactly breaking any new ground in his piece's intro or telling us anything that we don't already know. The sports world has some guys in it with very questionable character. Agreed. So let's keep going…
Jackie Robinson didn’t integrate Major League Baseball because he was a surpassingly decent person, though that is true. He didn’t manage it because other people – some decent, some self-interested – wanted it to happen, though that is also true. And it didn’t happen because it was right, though that’s the truest thing of all. Robinson integrated baseball because he could play.
Regardless of their level of talent, everyone deserves a chance to make a living. But not every man gets to play baseball. That’s not unfair. That just is.
Robinson blazed a trail in one field that helped open hundreds of others. He used America’s obsession with baseball to unsettle its notions about who was capable of what.
This pointed in the direction of equality, but it started in inequality. Robinson’s athletic abilities – only gifted to a few of us by a combination of good genetics and hard work – made the moral cause he represented possible. If Jackie Robinson was a .260 hitter of slightly-above-average speed and instincts, someone else cracks baseball’s colour barrier.
OK, wait, what? Kelly started off his piece by talking about guys with questionable character. Now, he's talking about Jackie Robinson. And while we think we kinda, sorta follow what he's trying to say here, we're not sure where he's headed with all of this.
After talking about Robinson, Kelly then writes more about what makes some athletes great before going back to talking about troubled athletes who have served time or demonstrated "strong sociopathic tendencies" during their careers. He's trying to make the point that these athletes have been allowed to play because of their talents. And then, at that point, he starts to address Incognito signing with the Bills and refers to him as a bully...
Over the weekend, the Buffalo Bills took a long look at offensive lineman Richie Incognito and decided he can play.
By all accounts, including his own, Incognito is a troubled fellow and not much fun to be around. Leading a small gang of malcontents, he hounded one of his Miami teammates, Jonathan Martin, temporarily out of football.
We spend so much time these days talking about “bullying” that the word is starting to lose its meaning, but this was a committed and oddly sexualized campaign of terror. Most of it was done in person. There are also hundreds of taunting texts, including an entire genre related to the proposed rape of Martin’s sister. This was more than cruel teasing, which happens on most teams. This was someone taking sensual pleasure in another person’s suffering. It was erotic and deranged.
When he was introduced as the new head coach of the Bills, Rex Ryan laid out his vision for the team: “We’re going to build a bully.”
After signing Incognito on Monday, he’s got one.
However, Kelly argues that, while Incognito is a bully—and while you wouldn't want Incognito to, say, date your sister or walk your dog—he's a guy you'd want on your football team…
Understandably, people are lining up against Incognito and the Bills for re-admitting him. We can argue about whether he’s a despicable person, but he’s certainly done despicable things. You wouldn’t want him dating your sister. You wouldn’t want this guy walking your dog. But there is room for him in football or any other game.
And then, in a surprise move (PLOT TWIST!), Kelly reintroduces Jackie Robinson into his hot take and attempts to compare Incognito's situation to the one Robinson faced so many years ago…
The notion that all “bad” people should be barred from modern-day sports is a perverted sub-species of the one that kept the Jackie Robinsons out of the games 60 years ago. It may have very different motivations, but it ends up in the same place – a subjective barrier to entry. Who defines that code? Where do they derive their authority from?
And a few paragraphs later, he closes with this…
Be very careful about chipping away at it. Forcing Richie Incognito out of sport may feel like the right thing to do today, but I can see a scenario that ends in capriciousness and a tyranny of status quo.
That would be a genuine shame.
Because, given the stakes, I’ll take a hundred current Richie Incognitos to defend the possibility of one future Jackie Robinson.
To which we say: HUH?!?
Look, if you want to argue that Incognito should be in the NFL next season—or hell, that he should have been in the NFL last season—go for it. We won't even argue against you. But we don't know how to respond to the argument that Kelly tried to make here, other than to repost @PFTCommenter's tweet again:
If you can make sense of what Kelly was trying to say—again, read here—more power to you. Hit us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know how dumb we are. But something tells us we aren't going to be the only ones left scratching our heads after reading his latest column.
Send all complaints, compliments, and tips to email@example.com.