All Boys Together

Rock 'em Sock 'em Robot Toy
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.

It’s All Fun and Games, Until Someone Runs For President

Young Mitt RomneyNo, news of Mitt Romney’s alleged prep school misdeeds did not slip past me.  I just held off blogging about them while they marinated in my brain.

Despite my strong dislike of Romney — with his creepy smile, shameless fear-mongering, and oily pandering to the Republican fringe — my first thought was, “Oh please, no high school dredging.”  I couldn’t imagine suffering through almost six months of the candidates debating which one inhaled/cheated on his trig midterm/lied when he said he once won Most Valuable Employee at the Dairy Queen for three consecutive months.

Besides, who among us didn’t do things in high school that we now regret? Like most teenagers, I was supremely self-involved, and often a pain in the backside to be around.  So I figured, how unusual could Romney’s behavior have been?  Then I read the details… and his response from the protective bosom of Fox News.

First, Romney trivialized bullying.  “I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school and some might have gone too far and for that, I apologize”

Hijinks?  Seriously?  Five former classmates at the posh Cranbrook School say Romney was incensed by the long blonde hair of John Lauber — a frequent target of bullying because of his non-conforming ways and assumed homosexuality.  Romney would eventually lead a “posse” to corner him, pin him to the ground, and cut his hair while he cried and pleaded for help.  If this was just madcap Romney horseplay, what precisely constitutes bullying?

Mitt Romney has emphasized that he doesn’t even remember the event, which is absurd.  I wasn’t a bully, but I can recall specific instances when I failed to defend someone who was marginalized and vulnerable, in the Lord-of-the-Flies world of high school.  In fact, they are so fresh in my mind they could have happened yesterday.  And let me tell you, they still make me cringe.  So either Romney’s cruel bullying was an anomaly — and he’s lying through his teeth about not remembering because he really wants to be the next President – or he has a hard time keeping his many acts of thuggishness straight.

What’s even more ridiculous?  Romney’s claims that even if the bullying he can’t recall DID happen, it definitely DID NOT happen because John Lauber was rumored to be gay.  “That was the furthest thing from my mind back in the 1960s.”

This was the 1960’s, Mr. Romney, not the 1560’s.  What are we supposed to believe, that you just thought the poor kid needed a trim?

I don’t think there’s anything Mitt Romney could do that could compel me to vote for him, but I would have respected him more if he’d admitted his mistakes, shown sincere remorse, and spoken out against bullying.  Instead he treated it like a joke.  But most of us aren’t laughing.