Column: A bullying problem in the NFL

On Nov. 4, Miami Dolphins’ lineman Richie Incognito was dismissed from the team indefinitely after charges of harassment and bullying were leveled against him by former teammate Jonathan Martin, who reportedly left the team due to his alleged treatment at the hands of Incognito and other veteran players.Live-Mike

According to sources, Martin, a second-year player, was forced to foot a $15,000 bill to a Las Vegas trip that he didn’t attend, fearing retribution from Incognito if he didn’t fork over the cash. Martin also alleges that he received numerous threatening texts and voicemails from Incognito. The final straw came last week in the team lunchroom when Martin sat down with the rest of the linemen—only to have the rest of the unit get up and relocate to another table.

If this sounds like an episode of DeGrassi Junior High, it’s not far off. But remarks—both by sports pundits and in the form of Internet comments on sites like ESPN.com—show that, despite the strides made by anti-bullying crusades in the last few years, people still don’t understand what lies at the root of the bullying problem. Too many people are focused on how a 300 pound athlete like Martin could be a victim.

Of course, it’s not that simple.

Martin likely felt he had nowhere to turn. In insular communities like those found in sports locker rooms, there’s often an established pecking order, a hierarchy and a mindset to keep things in-house.

Now, this is in no way my indictment of “jock culture.” You can find the same basic principles established in sororities, fraternities, marching bands, and heck, even boardrooms at Fortune 500 companies. But when the rookie, the pledge, or the intern feels a line is being crossed, what can he or she do? Risk the wrath of higher-ups by reporting the behavior and face further ostracism? Keep quiet and endure the barbs of a tormentor? The options for a victim—be he a world-class athlete or a pimple-faced freshman hoping to impress the Delta brothers, are limited and that feeling of helplessness can cause a ton of mental duress.

But this begs another question, one that has been raised by numerous former players after these reports surfaced, “Where do you draw the line on hazing?”

When I was a freshman and sophomore in high school, I dealt with my fair share of hazing from the older football players, though most of it, in my mind, was warranted. As a youngster with “a bit of a mouth on me,” as I’ve heard it described, I never thought twice about hurling barbs at our older players, guys sometimes twice my size. I’d rib the senior fullback about his summer job as a lifeguard at the Scarsdale Pool, imitating the hand gestures he’d use from his perch on the lifeguard chair to stop some eight year olds from horsing around on the deck and, more often then not, find myself face-down in the weight room in a full-nelson. I’d comment on our nose guard’s cauliflower ear and end up against the wall feeling the full wrath of what is called, in some circles, a purple-nurple, a particularly devious form of punishment that would leave my chest bruised for days.

But rightly or wrongly, I never felt like a victim. I viewed these seniors as older brothers of sorts, guys who would, and often did, swiftly come to my defense if I ever found myself in a jam with a bully who wasn’t part of our football fraternity. They knew that I could take what they dished out and I never saw any malice in what they were doing.

But, too often, this kind of “go along to get along” mindset can lead to a general permissiveness inside the culture of a locker room. All it takes is one oaf—the sort Incognito has shown himself to be in nearly every stop of his collegiate and professional career—to turn some horseplay into something crueler.

One of my teammates that freshman year wasn’t as lucky as I when it came to fending off‑or laughing off‑harassment from the older players. Perhaps it was his naturally withdrawn nature or the fact that, as a kicker, he didn’t participate in the more physical aspects of the game, but he became an easy target for some of the more intimidating upperclassmen.

One day, he came into the locker room to find that some of the older players had urinated on his jersey and pads.

I don’t remember if the players involved were ever disciplined, but what I do remember was the silence. The rest of the freshmen class saw what had happened to our classmate, but refused to stand up to the perpetrators. It was just locker room hijinx, we told ourselves, and we weren’t about to bring any undue attention on our own heads lest we incur the same wrath.

One classmate’s father even weighed on the situation, noting, that it could have been worse, and that “pee, at least, was sterile.”

Looking back on it now, I can’t imagine how our locker room—a space that’s supposed to build camaraderie among brothers in arms—must have seemed like an awfully lonely place for our kicker.

Though the full extent of Martin’s reports haven’t surfaced, it appears as though Incognito will likely be done for the season and—as a free agent—will never suit up for the Dolphins again. This keeps in step with encouraging signs that people are willing to get serious about standing up to bullying, be it through education or simply imposing stiffer penalties for those accused of stepping out of line.

But it’s not just the job of coaches and athletic directors to step in when things get out of line, handing out punishments after the fact.

Equal responsibility lies on the shoulders of the players who are in the locker room on a daily basis. At their best, team sports teach young athletes that it’s imperative to stand behind your teammates at all times. But, to me, that’s not about hiding behind tradition when something foul is happening in the locker room. It means standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.

 

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About Mike Smith

Mike Smith has been with Hometown Media Group since 2007, serving as the company’s Sports Editor. Mike has been commended for his work by the New York Press Association, winning awards in 2008 for “Best Sports Feature” and again in 2009 as part of a team that put together “The Game,” a breakdown of the Harrison-Rye football rivalry, which won for “Best Special Section.” His weekly column, “Live Mike,” offers his unique insights into a broad range of topics in the sports world. He resides in Eastchester, N.Y. and spends most of his free time serving as the player-manager for a competitive men’s baseball team in New York City. Reach Mike at 914-653-1000 x22 or sports@hometwn.com; follow him on Twitter @LiveMike_Sports.