The classic image of a bully resembles Moe, a character from Bill Waterson’s comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes.” Large, strong and slow-witted, Moe was always ready to torment the strip’s protagonist for his lunch money or just for fun.
That image, however, is outdated. Bullying and harassment can take many forms, and people of all ages - and sizes - can be the target of such behavior.
A 24-year-old football player is just as much a 24-year-old (with all the sensitivities and insecurities of a young person just starting to make his way in the world) as he is a football player. Even a 300-pound NFL offensive lineman is not immune from bullying.
Jonathan Martin, a player for the Miami Dolphins, recently left the team after an incident of verbal harassment in the team lunchroom. The incident, it appears, was the latest in a long line of bullying from Martin’s teammates. Richie Incognito was “the ring-leader” of the players harassing Martin, CBS reported. Incognito has since been indefinitely suspended for conduct detrimental to the team. In addition to his involvement in the lunchroom incident that prompted Martin’s departure, Incognito left a threatening voicemail, including a racial slur, for Martin in April and also sent him a series of derogatory texts referring to Martin’s sexual orientation.
A professional football team is as much about professionalism as much as it is about football. All the usual workplace rules about harassment and discrimination should apply. The NFL has an Excellence in Workplace Conduct program, which presumes “that all NFL players and prospective players have the right to work in a positive environment that is free from any and all forms of harassment, intimidation and discrimination,” The New York Times reported. Behavior such as Incognito’s is out of bounds, as it would be in any other workplace setting.
There are plenty of people who will argue that the NFL is a tough, violent place, and that, as Dolphin defensive tackle Randy Starks told reporters last week, “you can’t have thin skin around here.” Starks may not be the best source of information on the boundaries of appropriate conduct, however. After sacking an opposing quarterback, Starks was seen earlier this season gesturing with his middle finger at his own coaches, who had taken him out of the starting lineup.
Toughness does not require hazing. Don’t take my word for it; go ask the Marines. They know a lot more about being tough than I do - and their position on workplace abuse is crystal clear.
Gen. James F. Amos, the commandant of the Marines, reminded all personnel earlier this year that “hazing has no place in a disciplined and professional military force and remains unlawful, prohibited, and will not be tolerated.” In a further piece of advice - one that would have been a big help to the Dolphins’ overwhelmed coaching staff, had they heeded it - the Marines’ top-ranking officer observed that hazing “is a warfighting and leadership issue that destroys trust and confidence in unit leadership and fellow Marines, thus undermining unit cohesion and combat readiness.”
Miami players are putting up a united front as they prepare for tonight’s game against Tampa Bay, which is winless in eight games so far this season. We will see tonight whether the 4-4 Dolphins are, as the Marines like to say, combat-ready.
A football player is not a coward if he decides he isn’t going to stand for any more abuse. Martin is a young man who evidently realizes that life is more important than football, and self-respect is something that is easy to lose and hard to get back. Respect from others has to start with respect for oneself. While it is not yet clear whether Martin will return to the Dolphins, his decision to leave was clearly not made lightly.
In the aftermath of Martin’s departure, it is also becoming evident that his experience highlights widespread problems throughout the league. Former players, including Isaiah Kacyvenski, have spoken out about their own experiences in the wake of the incident. “I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner,” Kacyvenski said regarding Incognito’s misconduct and resulting suspension.
The Dolphins should have stepped in earlier, but better late than never. Incognito should have been brought to heel long ago. ESPN reported that Incognito had a history of rule violations and poor behavior that predated his time with the Dolphins. And while coaches often rely on their players to police one another, it is ultimately team management’s responsibility to make sure all players work in an environment where they feel safe and respected.
Do young men from elite schools face additional razzing in the NFL? I am sure they do. Martin, who attended Stanford University, has not drawn a direct connection between his alma mater and the bullying, but Kacyvenski - who attended Harvard - said it was one of the reasons his teammates made jokes at his expense. Some such jokes might be good natured, but a degree of envy is almost inevitable. Football careers are brief, uncertain affairs. Contract money is usually not guaranteed, and nearly everyone is one injury away from needing a new line of work. Smart and well-educated young men have more options than a lot of their teammates and opponents do. Education has a longer shelf life than the physical prowess necessary to excel at a sport as punishing as football, even if injury doesn’t cut a career short.
Greater opportunity will attract a certain amount of admiration and a certain amount of resentment from those who lack it. Pro athletes are just like people anywhere else.
Some good can come out of drawing attention to problems like those on the Dolphins. NFL teams, and other pro sports teams as well, can take this opportunity to commit to becoming more inclusive - or, at a minimum, to becoming more tolerable places in which to earn a living. Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III recently urged gay NFL players to come out. Earlier this year, Jason Collins of the NBA became the first active male athlete in American professional sports to do so. If the NFL and other professional leagues take steps to make their players feel safe and welcome, we might see more athletes responding to Griffin’s call.
For now, congratulations to Jonathan Martin for standing up for his own well-being, and a thumbs-up to the Dolphins for drawing a line, if belatedly, on workplace abuse.