All Boys Together

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Image via ryan_larue, Flickr

So much is being written about the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal. Every hour brings another voice mocking Jonathan Martin for his “weakness” in backing down, or dog piling on Richie Incognito for his lewd behavior, explosive temperament and fondness for drunken, half-naked pool playing with his ass crack on full display.

I, of course, can offer no inside scoop from unnamed NFL sources, or related experience based on my days on the gridiron. (In fact, I had to Google “gridiron” to ensure I’m using it correctly.) Yet as more and more awful stories emerge – “He said WHAT?!?!” “They forced him to do WHAT?!?!?” – the bigger picture, and some simple truths, keep getting lost.

Richie Incognito sent Jonathan Martin racist, profane threats and insults via text message and voicemail. That fact is not in dispute. And the debate really isn’t about bullying in the broad sense, since anyone within five feet of a microphone or sports writer’s notepad this week has denounced bullying in the strongest possible terms. Rather the question seems to be whether these often freakishly huge men – who play an incredibly violent sport, requiring both physical toughness, and team loyalty and cohesion – should be held to the same standard of conduct as the rest of us. Should behavior that would constitute bullying in the normal world be characterized as such in the NFL?

In the age of anti-bullying campaigns like “It Gets Better”, it is disturbing to hear so many players and broadcasters suggest that Martin should have “manned up” and physically fought Incognito to stop his aggression. Granted, Martin is a big guy… but Richie Incognito is huge too (6 feet 3 inches tall, 305 pounds). Plus, if video footage is any proof, he’s also insane. Seriously, watch that video and TELL ME you’d fight that guy, even if you outweighed him by 50 pounds.

Indications are that other players followed Incognito’s lead, and Dolphin’s coaches turned a blind eye at best. At worst, staff encouraged Incognito to “toughen (Martin) up” after he missed two voluntary practices. They probably didn’t expect him to send vulgar, racist messages to achieve this — but my guess is, they didn’t ask for details because they didn’t really care.

(As an aside, does anyone else think someone needs to buy Dolphin coaches a dictionary, so they can look up the word “voluntary”? If they wanted players to attend so badly, perhaps they should have made the practices MANDATORY.)

So, what was Jonathan Martin supposed to do — take on the entire locker room plus Dolphin’s coaching staff? Even if he survived the fight, why would he expect Incognito or any of the lemmings on the team to have his back at the next practice?

Here’s a thought: WHAT IF Jonathan Martin — despite the nature of his chosen profession — just doesn’t think violence is a constructive way to resolve conflict? (Yes I know, NFL, I’ve just blown your mind.)

Incognito’s defenders call it harmless hazing that helps a team bond — you know, all that “band of brothers” stuff, which is a load of baloney. A brother short sheets your bed. He doesn’t force you to pay $15,000 toward a vacation, then say you can’t come along. There was no brotherly love or team building going on in the Dolphins’ locker room. It was bullying, plain and simple.

Brian Phillips wrote a great piece for ESPN’s Grantland, pointing out the irony of antipathy toward Martin — whose stated reason for leaving the Dolphins was “emotional issues” — in a sport where depression and suicide are rampant. This angle never occurred to me, as I watched the story unfold. It’s definitely worth a read.

I have wondered how much Martin’s Stanford degree factored into players’ treatment of him. Several African-American teammates remarked that he wasn’t “black enough”, whereas Incognito (who attended both Nebraska and Oregon, but graduated from neither) was “honorary” (i.e. an honorary black man). That topic is a little out of my wheelhouse, however it is worth quoting Isaiah Kacyvenski — a former NFL linebacker who holds both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard:

“Only in the NFL can a Harvard degree have negative consequences.”

What strikes me most is how this scandal reflects that tired, twisted mentality surrounding men who excel in any physically demanding sport — but none more than football. We saw it in Steubenville, Ohio. We saw it with Aaron Hernandez — lots of boys-will-be-boys-just-blowing-off-some-steam-blame-the-victim justifications and second chances, right up to the point he allegedly murdered someone.

When Jovan Belcher from the Kansas City Chiefs killed his girlfriend, then himself, in 2012 there was a chorus of, “What a tragedy! How do these things happen?” If we’re being honest, though, we all know how these things happen. They happen when we, as a society, hold young athletes to lesser standards. We overlook poor academic performance, violent outbursts and aggressive behavior towards women. Then, when they reach adulthood, we expect these MEN to magically demonstrate restraint, impulse control, responsibility and maturity, and we are shocked — SHOCKED — when they fail.

Who knows how the scandal will shake out for Incognito, Martin and the Dolphins. Bullying may have been a dirty little secret in the NFL, but now it’s out in the open and it appears the League will be forced to act.

There’s a lesson here for athletes, parents and coaches at the high school and college levels too — if anyone chooses to hear it.

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