Bullying: Why the Jonathan Martin situation is less complicated than we think

Let’s consider this scenario: You run the day-to-day operations at a company that is worth hundreds of million dollars. One of your higher-paid employees complains that he’s been (allegedly) threatened, made to feel unsafe, and has been subject to racial slurs by another employee. He has voicemails to prove these allegations. This is an easy solution. You fire the misbehaving employee, who probably doesn’t get another job anywhere else, and you hope the first employee doesn’t sue the company.

So why are people getting upset that Miami Dolphins cut Richie Incognito? Because Jonathan Martin, the player allegedly bullied to the point that he quit a job that paid him millions of dollars, is big and tough and should have confronted his bully? We tend to live in this masculine fantasy world where, if someone commits an act that hurts or insults us, we hypothetically confront them, forcefully or physically. But, in reality, that’s never really the case. Martin acted just the way we all would when faced with someone who made going to work each day unbearable, he told his superior. That’s why this is different than, as a friend wondered, cutting a guy with DUI or a gun charge. People don’t necessarily get fired for these offenses. Though they are problematic, they are not something that creates hostility within the workplace.

Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin

Hazing, part of the NFL – and sports in general – for many years, is a complicated issue, one that deals with knowing limits, perspectives, and a falsity of assertion that the playing of dues is the only way in which a person, in this case a teammate, can truly demonstrate his or her ability to contribute to the greater good of the team.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I was on the varsity football team, playing (very) sparingly, during blowouts on either end of the spectrum, mostly. The seniors on the team were, for lack of a better word, difficult. They hazed us, relentlessly, and to a variety of degrees. They weren’t bad people, in fact, and, they’d claim, we had it much easier than they had had it when they were sophomores. I guess we should have thought ourselves lucky.

Among the offenses: receivers were directed to run certain routes, so that the seniors, acting as defenders would know when/where to make a violent hit.  If we didn’t render ourselves defenseless (that is, if we didn’t try to make the catch, but tried to, you know, defend ourselves), we had to run the routes again. We were subject to “pink bellies,” where you’d be held down by a group of seniors, your shirt lifted and slapped until your stomach was red. This was especially painful in the colder weather. We, when the rains would come, be forced to make a line and slide through a muddy path or puddle. One day at practice, a particularly cold one, there was no puddle. So they found a hose and made one.

The event that frightened us the most was an event named, colloquially, “senior picks,” whereby a senior, having to deal with us pesky sophomores all season long, would designate a sophomore with whom they would like to hit one-on-one, regardless of their size or your size. All season long, we heard seniors threaten us with being their “senior pick.” This usually happened after you made a catch, intercepted a pass, or made a good play in practice. Heaven forbid a sophomore try to, you know, make a play that would encourage coaches to play them more often in varsity games.  It wasn’t uncommon for a senior to threaten multiple players with making them his “senior pick,” which would take place before their last practice as a varsity football player. I feel, at one point, every senior had picked every sophomore.

“Senior picks” never happened that year. A fellow sophomore alerted the coaches, unintentionally, of what was going to take place before practice – as if they didn’t know – but I truly feel that the coaching staff had to step in at that point. It’s bad enough to feign ignorance, but even worse to literally know what’s happening before practice and not intervene. Instead of what would have probably been a couple jarring hits, mostly disappointing ones, though, the coaches came down to the field early, and made us conclude stretching with 100 up/downs, whereby we’d run in place, high knees, and every time he blew the whistle, we’d have to hit the ground then pop back up. It was horrible.

A sign outside of Richie Incognito's locker.
A sign outside of Richie Incognito’s locker.

Alas, eventually, we became seniors and the hazing relented a bit. Sophomores still carried water and equipment, but there was no sideline routes being run, a defender waiting to lay him out. There were no puddles of mud to slide through. We did, however, tell the sophomores that, on the day of our first game, we all wore our game pants to school. Of course, we really did not and did this, in effect, to embarrass the sophomores.  A harmless prank, we assumed.

Most of the sophomores assented and wore their pants, camaraderie. We approved of these teammates, but one teammate didn’t wear his pants and was “assaulted,” inasmuch as play punches and the threat of an aforementioned pink belly. He cried. Football team was punished. The local paper ran a story about hazing at our high school. It was almost the end of our football season, and many of our football careers.

I remember thinking about the regression of our grit as a population. Jumping through puddles, wearing pants on game day, enduring being targeted for one-on-one hitting was part of the coming of age, the paying of dues. You were embarrassed, you got knocked down, but on the other end, there was an older guy with his hand extended to help you up. There was a guy in the hallway of the high school, two years your senior, and sometimes higher in the school’s social order, shaking your hand or sitting with you at lunch. Of course, this wasn’t always the case, and some people took their position as a senior much more seriously than they should have. But, in a larger sense, there was a community of teammates building a culture of respect, of a hierarchy that will ultimately prove familiar throughout our lives.

At least that was my experience.

But perspective makes a significant difference. Some people did feel targeted and, while maybe I was helped up and slapped on the ass, others were pushed down, or forced to do even more reps.

There are many people who’ll use terms like “pussification” to explain the situation in Miami concerning Richie Incognito, the alleged bully, and Jonathan Martin, the accuser. We’ll throw around words like “adults” and “paying dues.” We’ll wonder how someone 24 years old, 6 foot 5 inches tall, 312 pounds and Stanford University-educated could possibly be a victim to hazing that has seemingly been a part of the culture of the NFL for it’s existence. And, like the people who claim the game is getting “soft” for taking a hard stance of violence and head injuries, there will be dissenters who would rather take Incognito’s side. That’s fine.

I’m surprised by my own feeling on this because, historically, I’ve stood firmly in the “be a man, stand up for yourself” camp. But, as I said earlier, we can’t account for perspective. What and how we experience events tends to cloud our own perspective. That is, because we exist solely through the prism of our own experiences, we believe that everyone experiences these events in the same way we do. We don’t know what or how Martin felt. And, while we can use conjecture to determine how we’d react, we can’t do so for anyone else. Maybe we’d have taken the (alleged) abuse in stride, laughing it off and waiting until another rookie came along eventually to replace your spot as whipping boy. Maybe Martin didn’t have that in him. Maybe the hazing really did surpass any degree to which any player in NFL history had gone through. We will probably hear all the delicious details: the voicemails and threats and stories. We’ll never understand, as articulate and thoughtful as Martin may be, how they felt from his perspective though.

And that’s why I think it’s good we’re looking into this situation. I’m sure the NFL will look into the position coaches and other players, histories of both players, just as I’m sure there are a team of lawyers outside of Martin’s door with dollar signs in their eyes. And that’s the sad part: Jonathan Martin may not ever be an All-Pro. He might not even be remembered as a catalyst to change the hazing culture in the NFL. He may be remembered in a more negative light, as someone who violated some unwritten code of player conduct and made away with millions in settlement money.

Update: The report by Ted Wells came out today, as did the transcripts of messages between Martin and his parents. All of this essentially mirrored what I suggested a few months ago when these reports started to surface. We cannot account for perspective. Martin, in his messages to Incognito, was playing a role. He was acting. On the inside, he didn’t enjoy the constant ribbing. It hurt his feelings, hurt his pride, and, in his opinion, confirmed what his very low opinion of his self-worth.

I’m still disturbed by the inclination of some people to suggest Martin is soft here. If nothing else, the comments like that only drive Martin further down the hole he’s already inside. I hope he’s avoided the comment section of some sites, driven by anonymous idiots.

That being said, I wrote earlier this week in light of the Michael Sam announcement, that maybe we were being too presumptuous of NFL locker rooms. When we were talking of intolerance within locker rooms, in those hyper-masculine confines, I thought, we were talking about a time passed. When the major networks started quoting anonymous GM’s or former players or coaches who questioned the “culture” or “baggage” Sam would bring, my immediate reaction was, “Well, those people are of a different generation. An older generation. People my age (incidentally the age of the current demographic of NFL players, actually they’re a bit younger) have been exposed to much more. It won’t be a problem.”

I still feel this way. Does the action of the Miami Dolphins offensive line affect this opinion? Kind of. But I think much of their behavior is a reflection of culture and leadership. They acted like assholes because, well, they were allowed to act like assholes (and probably have acted this way – with no repercussion – throughout Pee Wee, high school and college ball). Somewhere, in some twisted alternative universe, it was okay to make fun of Martin’s race or sister or mother. Maybe too many years have passed between now and lynched persons and burnt churches. Martin is an embodiment of the incredible strides we’ve made in racial relations over the past 50 years.

I’m befuddled that there are people supporting Martin and his idiot teammates. Professional sports, to most people, are an abstraction. It’s a world – a fraternity, they say – that we cannot inhabit. We tend to believe they occupy a different place in the world. Because they’re so big, because they’re so strong. Maybe they do. Maybe we have elevated them to non-human status. Just note that if this behavior took place in any other workplace in the world, we’d be on Martin’s side.

6 Replies to “Bullying: Why the Jonathan Martin situation is less complicated than we think”

  1. How much of the investigation business is tied into the Players Association? In a union job — say as an electrician — the union would want to conduct an investigation, and make sure everything happened the way it sounded like it happened. In a non-union case, I agree…they would probably just dismiss the guy, making it tough for him to find another job. Not to start a union/non-union debate, but I think it’s worth noting in terms of your analogy.

    1. That’s a good question, Nate. And I have many issues with unions, so my hypothetical answer may be skewed. But, I think a dues-paying union member (Incognito) will at least be given a fighters chance here because people are afraid to stand up to unions. In the private sector, he’d be fired. And, in my opinion, rightfully so.

  2. Who’s the real bad guy in this story? SF and JB for taking the blame in 1999? The rest of the seniors for not admitting any guilt? The kid who didn’t wear his game pants to school? Eagle Tribune muckraker JB? Or Ray L. and Kenny H.?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s