Bullying is a fact of life for reasons I don’t have the time or desire to discuss. We all have memories of getting pantsed in eighth grade gym class. It happens. For most people, this is something that ends around the time that adolescence does. I think/hope that there’s no real bullying happening on our campus. But, if you’re part of a select few, you get to experience the joys of bullying well into adulthood!
The select few I’m talking about, of course, are professional football players.
Last week, the Miami Dolphins suspended Richie Incognito (yes, that’s his real name) for bullying his teammate Jonathan Martin. Martin, a Stanford grad, was in his second pro season when he left the team a few days prior, citing emotional reasons. It seems that Incognito was using Martin as everything from a personal ATM—Martin paid $15,000 for a trip to Las Vegas he didn’t go on—to a receptacle for verbal abuse. Incognito left a voicemail for Martin calling the latter a “half-n***** piece of s***,” and threatening him and his family.
Richie Incognito has a spotted past. His earlier years as a pro garnered him a reputation as the dirtiest player in the league. In college, he was suspended by Nebraska, and transferred to Oregon only to be dismissed from their team too. But he too was a kid once, and as someone who grew up to weigh 310 pounds, he too was bullied. It’s unfortunate that this turned him into a jackass, but then bullying is often cyclical.
For as bad as this story is, the reaction might be worse. A former teammate of both players berated Martin for breaking the code of the locker room (tattling, if you will), while extolling football as a “man’s job.” Antrel Rolle, who in the past compared football players to soldiers returning home from Iraq, said that Martin was “just as much to blame.” Mike Ditka, who played in an era where concussions were rarely diagnosed, says that in his day a guy like Incognito would have been taken to “Fist City,” which I couldn’t seem to find on Google Maps. The GM of the Dolphins avoided metaphor and reportedly suggested that Martin simply punch Incognito. A few NFL types courageous enough to speak anonymously described Martin as a coward, weak. Browse a comments section (please don’t) and you’ll see a lot of the same sentiments.
All of this is aggressively stupid. These are fully-grown adults to whom the concept of manliness is seen as more important than the notion that perhaps civilized human beings don’t behave in this way. The idea that true men solve their conflicts by punching someone in the mouth is dangerous. It’s unhealthy.
I’ve fought bullies. More often than I’d like to admit. I once had the nickname “Kung-fu Brister” because I was so quick to amend problems with my fists. But I was 12. Even then, this behavior wasn’t given a pass. Nobody suggested that I had gone about things the right way. I was told that violence wouldn’t fix things, and that I had to think before I act. If I, a pubescent boy, could learn to control my rage, surely we can expect the men of society to adhere to the same standard.
But the NFL is different, and particularly so among multibillion dollar companies. High level football is the sporting equivalent of a Jackass movie, a place where testosterone exists for testosterone’s sake. Masculinity and machismo are celebrated. Only in football are attempts to reduce the inherent risk of brain damage met by consternation and a parade of brain damaged individuals longing for the good old days. Staying on the field with a concussion is a sign of toughness. Players are warriors, lineman are in the trenches, Northwestern and Under Armour think blood-spattered American flag uniforms are a good idea. Antrel Rolle’s soldier comparison was not an invention of his own; he’s not even the first player to get in trouble for that metaphor. But it’s wrong every time. Football, while dangerous, is not war.
The military, after all, has a policy against hazing.