You've got it all wrong, a prominent member of the Miami Dolphins complained to SI last week. The scandal engulfing his team wasn't being reported through the right lens. Yes, Richie Incognito might have acted like a jackass, one who had not crossed some line of civility so much as he'd obliterated it. But Jonathan Martin needed to come in for some criticism too.
Because, the player explained, Martin had never told anyone on the team about his frustrations. He'd never complained to management, to coaches, to the team's leadership council. Never said, "I don't feel comfortable." Never said he was feeling picked on. If you're a real teammate, the Dolphin asserted, you don't just walk away in the middle of the season. If Martin was upset and had an issue with the way he was bring treated, fine. But he handled it terribly.
Agree or disagree, it was a measured assessment—one that would be echoed by other Miami players in coming days. When I asked whether the player would be willing to be quoted by name, the answer came instantly. No chance in hell.
November 18, 2013
"The whole bullying thing," he said. "Not going anywhere near that."
L'Affaire Incognito, as one South Florida radio host is calling it, may sound like a French art house film. But this is a quintessentially American creation, a stew of sports and violence and manhood and media and tribalism and ostracism—with a race/class garnish. And it also involves perhaps one of the country's most powerful movements in recent years. This has already been a massive victory for the antibullying forces.
This was initially characterized by the Dolphins as a locker room dispute in which Martin was simply the subject of some ribbing. But once the evidence mounted that portrayed Incognito as a bully—a scandal shorthanded, inevitably, to bullygate—the entire narrative made the equivalent of a formation shift. Incognito's "ribbing," apparently sanctioned by coaches who wanted Martin toughened up, suddenly warranted a suspension for conduct detrimental to the team.
Don't misunderstand: While the antibullying movement has seized control of the conversation, it is, ultimately, a force for good. If you've never been bullied, consider yourself part of a lucky minority. Most know first-hand that bullying can be devastating. "Basically," says Emily Bazelon, author of the recent book Sticks and Stones, "bullying is a concerted effort to make someone's life miserable." The research, which focuses on teenagers and not the workplace, reveals that victims are more prone to at-risk behavior, depression, bad grades and a litany of other ills. And as rotten as bullying is in the present, the effects linger. Ask adults about a bullying experience from childhood and, odds are, they can recount it with striking precision.
The overlap between bullying and sports is a significant one. Bullying often requires some combination of a) a power imbalance; b) a social imbalance; and c) a physical imbalance, to make those threats credible, or, worse, administer beatings. So it is that the archetypal bully is a jock, picking on a member of a lesser tribe. It's Emilio Estevez, the star wrestler, taping the kid's butt cheeks together in Breakfast Club. It's Dave Karofsky, the hulking football player in Glee, harassing Kurt with homophobic slurs—before himself kissing and falling in love with Kurt. Even Nelson Muntz, the bully on The Simpsons, doubles as the quarterback of Bart's peewee team. (If we're being honest, Incognito, too, comports with our image of a bully. One look at the guy and it does not exactly strain the imagination to envision him, say, lording over the back of a school bus, menacing the classmate carrying the violin case.)
But beyond the social power and superior physicality, athletes come from a culture that values intimidation and rewards aggression. The Code of Sports normalizes bullying, blurring the line between a mentor and a tormentor. You stand up and man up and cowboy up—and never back down. Fight trumps flight. In the case of the Dolphins, it's not just that the team allegedly ordered up Incognito's treatment of Martin. According to the reporting of SI's Jim Trotter, the team had, in the words of an ex-player, "sensitivity fines" for players deemed unacceptably soft. Martin was "soft, soft, soft"—so much so that it was suggested he ought to be fined an entire game check. Meanwhile the same sensibilities that made Incognito a bully are what made him a fearsome NFL player.
But then there's this twist: If jocks make up a disproportionate number of bullies, so too have they played an outsized role in the antibullying movement. Look up the bios of contemporary athletes and note how many of them align themselves with antibullying campaigns, suddenly the most voguish of causes. Last month all 30 MLB teams took part in Spirit Day to denounce bullying. ("It's a serious problem," said Mets third baseman David Wright, "that can happen to anyone at any time, at any place.") The NHL is heavy into antibullying, too—Dave (the Hammer) Schulz, a former Flyers enforcer, even started a program in 2011 called Put Bullying on Ice. Lakers guard Steve Nash was an early antibullying crusader. ("Bullying is about the insecurity of the person who feels the need to bully.") Same for Drew Brees. ("I want my fans to know that if they are making fun of someone because they are different, you are no friend of mine.") Middleweight boxing champ Sergio Martinez said he would use his one-on-one visit with Pope Francis last month to discuss antibullying.
Inasmuch as there's a ringleader, it might be Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson. Two years ago Jackson saw a video of a Philadelphia teenager, Nadin Khoury, getting dragged through the snow by six thugs. He was sufficiently moved that he consoled Khoury on The View and offered to help in the future: "Anytime you need us, I got two linemen." (Arm yourself with tissues and spark up YouTube.) Jackson stayed friends with Khoury and spends much of his off-season visiting schools, preaching a message of inclusion. After learning of the death of Bailey O'Neill, a 12-year-old from Pennsylvania who died after being jumped by two classmates in their school yard, Jackson recently blogged, "I took pride in knowing that my status as a professional athlete gave me a national platform to raise awareness of the impact bullying has on the lives of vulnerable youth. I thought that I was making a difference by advocating.... However, as I learn about Bailey's life and how he died, the more I know that I must be more committed to eradicating bullying."
In no small part because of the social force of athletes like Jackson, bully has become the lowest designation in our lexicon. The Dolphins player made an interesting observation: Incognito's liberal use of the n-word—which threatened Riley Cooper's career just a few months ago—and the vile threats to Martin's sister didn't cause nearly as much offense as the allegations of bullying. When a Texas high school football team won a game 91--0, it didn't become a national story until the parent of a son on the losing team filed an official bullying complaint. On New York City sports radio Keith Olbermann was accused of bullying his underlings by hosts Craig Carton and Boomer Esiason. The severity of the charge was such that Olbermann demanded a retraction. Said Olbermann, "What these chuckleheads did, comparing whatever they think I did ... to what Incognito did, minimizes what Jonathan Martin and others went through."
So, last week, when the NFL tribalists defended Incognito—invoking the "unique culture" and "warrior mentality" and "the locker room dynamic" and tweeting out military analogies—they came across as wildly out of touch and behind the times. When they couldn't understand why Martin hadn't fought back since, after all, he and Incognito were both in the same weight class, it revealed a cluelessness about the dynamics of bullying. When they minimized the very idea that this could be bullying—"It's based on speculation," the Dolphins' organization initially said, dismissively—we were reminded that this was the same League of Denial that tried to pass off head injuries as mere "bell ringings."
From the mainstream media coverage—and this one has mesmerized the NPR crowd—to the comments sections of articles quoting players sympathetic to Incognito, the message was unmistakable: The NFL was having a hard time finding buyers. "It's amazing how little hold all of those [macho] claims have had, especially given how ingrained they are," says Bazelon. "We're at a point when we're questioning all of this, and it speaks to the power of the word bullying."
The scandal, of course, is still unfolding. Will Incognito, Martin, both or neither return to the NFL? What's the next vile text or voice mail to drop? Will the Dolphins fissure or unite? As we watch, we've already arrived at a cultural moment that has taught us this: When even the toughest, meanest jocks mess with the antibullying movement, they're not winning that fight.
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Aug. 2002: First freshman O-lineman to start opener in Nebraska history
Spring 2003: Suspended for fighting in practice and sent to anger management
June 2004: Found guilty of assault after fight at party
Sept.--Oct. 2004: Thrown off Nebraska team for incident with teammate, transfers to Oregon, kicked off Ducks team in space of four weeks
April 2005: Picked in third round by Rams
Nov. 2009: Voted NFL's dirtiest player by peers in Sporting News poll
May 2012: Accused of harassing female volunteer at Dolphins golf tournament; teams says it handled matter internally
Dec. 2012: Makes first Pro Bowl; wins Good Guy award from local media
All-purpose yards gained by the Rams' Tavon Austin during a 38--8 win over the Colts. Austin scored touchdowns of 98 (punt return), 57 and 81 yards.
Times Vanderbilt has now beaten Florida and Georgia in the same season in its 123-year history. Vandy's 34--17 win over the Gators on Saturday snapped a 22-game losing skid in the series.
Population of Lake City, Tenn., which wants to change its name to Rocky Top, in the hope that the association with UT and its fight song—and a few yet-to-be-built attractions—will bring tourists to the impoverished town.
Pounds of bacon given away by Kansas State as part of a promotion for students attending the home opener of the women's basketball team. About 1,000 students received a free "boat of bacon" and saw the Wildcats defeat Tennessee State 85--53.
Estimated price that a gold medal won by Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics is expected to fetch when its auction closes on Dec. 7.
HOME WINNING STREAK OF THE TRINITY BANTAMS, WHOSE FOOTBALL STADIUM—OFFICIALLY Jessee/MILLER Field—IS KNOWN AS THE COOP AND INSPIRED THE TEAM'S BATTLE CRY: "NO POOP IN THE COOP!"