The national conversation about bullying has spilled over into an unlikely realm — the National Football League.
News broke over the weekend that second-year Miami Dolphins lineman Jonathan Martin had left the team after being bullied by veteran teammate Richie Incognito through a series of vile and threatening text messages. The subsequent fallout has resulted in an investigation by the NFL and team.
Bullying stories are not new. What is surprising about this story is the players (in this case, literally players) involved. At 300-plus pounds and 6-foot-5, Martin doesn’t fit with the societal stereotype so often associated with people on the receiving end of bullying.
This case just reinforces the reality that for all the talk of team and camaraderie fans so often hear, sports teams are ultimately comprised of highly paid athletes who are forced to play together whether they like it or not.
The NFL is far removed from the playground or school hallways. But only naiveté or wishful thinking would lead one to believe that an issue prevalent at grammar schools, middle schools, high schools and even colleges simply disappears when an athlete ascends into the professional ranks.
The reality is the culture of the NFL – and in a larger sense, the world of professional sports where toughness and machismo reign – can be an ideal breeding ground for bullying. It’s a continuous battle to prove oneself as bigger, stronger, harder than the next guy. Such an atmosphere creates a blurred line. If reports are true (and they seem true enough for the Dolphins to suspend Incognito indefinitely), Incognito went so past that line he crossed into near-criminal territory.
The bullying issue is not always so obvious.
The Incognito story raises awareness of the larger problem. But whether it will spur any lasting changes is unclear. Even in the wake of this extreme example, some football insiders football are criticizing Martin for his handling of the situation. It is hard to find anyone defending Incognito – his reported actions make that all but impossible – but a not-insignificant contingent believes Martin should have stood up for himself. Of course, the dissenters have largely hid behind the veil of anonymity.
Professional athletes are expected to be tough, both mentally and physically. There are unwritten parameters. While sometimes these expectations may be unrealistic, death threats and racial slurs should fall way outside this realm. If not, we need to reassess our sports culture. There is no other workplace where we would criticize an employee’s decision to bring this kind of hostile environment to the attention of management.
It is unfair to expect Martin to have done more to confront the situation. Had it escalated into a physical altercation, would those same critics be opposing his decision to take matters into his own hands? What kind of message would that send? How much good would that ultimately do? And why should it have to come down to that?
Nearly as disappointing is the apparent lack of leadership and character shown by Dolphins teammates. At least some – if not nearly all – of them had to be aware of the escalating situation. (More disturbing still is a report out of the Sun Sentinel that Dolphins coaches may have encouraged Incognito to “toughen up” his teammate, which – if true – clearly spiraled out of control.) Incidents like this one do not occur in a vacuum.
Then again, this case just reinforces the reality that for all the talk of team and camaraderie fans so often hear, sports teams are ultimately comprised of highly paid athletes who are forced to play together whether they like it or not.
To be fair, the situation in Miami shouldn’t be taken as a reflection of all NFL locker rooms. There are unarguably teams with the type of leadership – from players, coaches, management or all of the above – where such a scandal unfolding seems be a near impossibility.
Here’s to hoping Miami either becomes one of those organizations or that Martin finds himself a deserving home with a team that is.