Every week, in the latter part of the year, you’ll find me in front of the TV, watching my local team, the Washington Slurs. I do so even though the NFL is looking more like an unprincipled corporation all the time. In addition to the racist affront of the D.C. squad’s R-word name, recently revealed conduct by the hierarchy of the league tars the sport I played as a young sprout and enjoy as a couch potato. But I’m having second thoughts.
The effort by top management to conceal, for decades, the grievous brain damage the violent game inflicts on its players is a disgrace. And now we have the case of Jonathan Martin, who has been driven to leave the Miami Dolphins because of bullying. Martin, of course, is hardly a delicate little flower. He’s a 6-feet 5-inch, 312-pound offensive tackle, a man nicknamed “Moose,” even though his size is pretty average in his violent world of sumo offensive linemen. Nevertheless, he was hazed to the breaking point, with nowhere to turn in a culture that encourages brutality off the field as well as on. Only now, by ripping himself away from the game, has he brought attention to its excessive cruelty. His alleged main tormentor, Richie Incognito, is now characterizing himself as Martin’s mentor. “This isn’t an issue about bullying,” he insists, “it speaks to the culture of our locker room.” To be honest, I’ve always wondered why hazing is ever suitable, but what Martin has brought to light goes far beyond that. In fact, it is routine cruelty excused as a way to “toughen up” someone who’s already rugged enough to take part in the daily battering of professional football.
Sports are a metaphor for society as a whole. Finally, traditions of brutish harassment are being challenged in all settings. How many millions of our children over generations have suffered playground abuse that has left them with a sad legacy that stifles their lives? Until now, we’ve always excused it as a normal, even useful, rite of passage. No, it’s not. It’s plainly and simply an assault on emotions.
It extends into the adult world. A 2010 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute counted more than one-third of those questioned saying they had been demeaned at work, either through name-calling, spreading of rumors, shunning or other practices that can be passive-aggressive or aggressive-aggressive.
Why are humans so inhuman? In athletics and in business, the idea is to beat your competition, but why is it so necessary to defeat those with whom we’re supposed to be collaborating? For too many, the only way to feel adequate is to label someone else inadequate and take comfort in that person’s discomfort. Bullies will browbeat anyone who doesn’t seem to meet arbitrary and rigid standards of what’s “normal.”
Here’s what’s even worse. Often what’s “normal” is uninspired and unproductive. Most bullies are just frightened. So they attack those who might threaten their feelings of self-worth.
Forgive this psychobabble, but that’s what seemed to be going on with the Miami Dolphins. Let’s face it, not all athletes are super-intellectuals. How’s that for understatement? John Martin, however, doesn’t fit that stereotype. He has a degree in the classics from Stanford and comes from a family of high achievers. Arguably, that infuriated some of his teammates, including, perhaps, fellow lineman Richie Incognito, who decided to make Martin his special project. Incognito probably should have focused more on himself. Since this exploded, it’s come out he’s considered one of the dirtiest players in the NFL, and has frequently gotten into trouble.
All of this is finally being investigated. Once again, because of the bad publicity, the NFL is being forced into some introspection. It would be good if we all were.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist.