11/11/2013 08:56 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Of Gods and Men: Why a Football Player's Failure to Use Good Sense and Common Decency is No Excuse for Fans to Do the Same

"Locker room culture." There's an oxymoron if I've ever heard one -- especially when you consider the behavior that the term is being used to defend. I'm talking, of course, about Miami Dolphin guard Richie Incognito's behavior toward teammate Jonathan Martin.

"All this stuff coming out, it speaks to the culture of our locker room, it speaks to culture of our closeness, it speaks to the culture of our brotherhood," Incognito said in an interview on Fox Sports.

If friendly banter between two would-be brothers involves comments about defecating in each other's mouths and raping each other's relatives, I can only shudder to think what Thanksgiving is going to be like at the Incognito residence. Please don't pass the gravy. (Or anything, for that matter -- because if I'm Incognito's sister, I'm making plans to celebrate at a friend's house.)

I come from a big, rowdy Italian family. I have two brothers who are really close. They both spent a fair amount of time in locker rooms over the years. One was even a firefighter whose career began before there were any women to speak of in the department. Both of my brothers can get really raucous at times (okay, a lot of the time). But you know what they don't do? They don't threaten to kill people. They don't talk about raping people's relatives. They don't talk about sh**ting in people's mouths -- even to their closest (?!) friends and family.

But the main problem isn't what Richie Incognito said or did; it's our collective inability to figure out whether there's anything wrong with it at all. When the story first broke it was reported that Incognito was suspended for bullying behavior toward another teammate. Instead of examining Incognito's behavior, a debate erupted over whether a grownup -- especially a big, strong football player like Martin -- ever could be a victim of bullying. And that was our first "squirrel!" moment.

Professional football players are not gods; they're people. And people can get bullied. That's why there are laws protecting people against harassment in the workplace. True, when it comes to grownups, we usually refer to it as harassment and not bullying. But come on, people. Keep your eye on the ball here. Don't get distracted by the semantics and miss the substance.

Mercifully, our attention finally settled on the actual behavior rather than the label; but unfortunately, the quality of the debate did not improve when it did. The discussion centered on whether NFL locker rooms were somehow unique places that commoners could never hope to understand. I mean, how could mere mortals ever comprehend, let alone judge, the behavior that occurs in the exclusive dens of these testosterone super-charged gods?

This attitude sheds more light on cases like the Steubenville High School rape case. We are a society comprised of adults who view football players as being so special that we are unable to recognize when their behavior crosses a line. As such, how surprised can we be when (a) high school football players rape an incapacitated 16-year-old girl and brag about it on social media, (b) members of the public blame the victim, and (c) members of the media mourn the loss of the perpetrators' promising football careers? A society that deifies football players and disqualifies itself from being able to judge their actions cannot be shocked when folks like O.J. Simpson and (allegedly) Aaron Hernandez engage in actions that demonstrate that they, too, believe they can do whatever they want.

We're not talking about an incident involving military personnel that happened on a base in Afghanistan or a domestic abuse issue involving a police officer -- folks whose jobs necessarily include seeing things that we regular folks have the luxury of not having to witness. We're talking about people who play a game for a living. If neither the players nor the fans can keep clear on the lines of acceptable behavior for these players, then the game has indeed gone too far.

As regular folks, they are responsible when their behavior crosses a line. And as regular folks, they are entitled to protection when they are victimized. It matters not that Incognito's teammates have largely defended him as being a good guy, and that other current and former NFL players have explained that behavior that is commonplace in the locker room might appear strange to outsiders. There's a difference between commonplace and normal.

Whenever it comes to light that a group engages in behavior that deviates from societal norms, a common defense from members of that group is the behavior in question is just their way, that everyone in the group is perfectly fine with it, but the rest of us just don't understand. I'm not saying these teammate and players aren't being sincere; I'm saying their statements are no more exculpatory than a polygamist husband's defense of another member of his same sect.

Traumatic brain injury is a real risk to football players, but it's not contagious. Being football fans shouldn't impair our basic cognitive abilities. We still have powers of higher reasoning. Behavior that crosses a line is wrong -- whether it's engaged in by one of us in our workplace or a football player in that magical kingdom called the locker room. It doesn't make us bad fans to call it like we see it; it makes us responsible members of society.