Playful hazing of rookies is a time-honored tradition in the NFL. Rookies are forced to carry veterans’ pads throughout training camp, receive whacky haircuts from teammates, and have harmless pranks done to them.
These can be fun team-building activities and — as Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen pointed out — can serve as a good way to remind rookies that they have not yet arrived but rather are starting over at the bottom of the totem pole.
Over the line
But hazing can be taken too far.
When hazing advances to the point where it’s no longer fun and playful, it becomes harassment and even outright abuse.
That is what seems to have happened in Miami, where second-year tackle Jonathan Martin recently left the team after claiming he was abused by veteran guard Richie Incognito.
The evidence against Incognito appears fairly cut and dried. A voicemail that he left on Martin’s phone has gone public in which Incognito, who is white, uses racist insults against Martin, who is black — and on top of that, threatens to kill him.
This voicemail is surely not an isolated incident. It was left for Martin last summer, and Martin did not walk out on the team until late October. Incognito is accused of repeatedly texting Martin and threatening to hunt down members of his family and harm them.
It all came to a head in the team cafeteria, when Martin reportedly sat down at a table — only to see all his teammates get up and go elsewhere. Martin stormed out of the room and has not been back for over a week now. Instead, he checked himself into a hospital for emotional distress.
Backing the bully
Unsurprisingly, many people around the NFL are speaking out on this issue. What surprises and disgusts me is how many are defending Richie Incognito over Jonathan Martin.
The Miami Herald reports that most of the Dolphins players are supporting Incognitorather than Martin. New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle has blamed Martin for allowing this to happen rather than putting a stop to it himself. Various NFL executives have called Martin a coward (anonymously, of course, because they’re too cowardly to put their name to that statement) for failing to stand up to Incognito.
We the fans are being treated to a glimpse into the machismo culture of the NFL, and I for one do not like what I see.
Players are taught to police themselves and settle things on their own, but Martin cannot be faulted for running away here. Incognito, after all, has a long history of aggression, bullying, and starting fights.
Given what Dolphins players are saying right now, Martin is probably safe in assuming his teammates would side with Incognito over him if it came down to a physical confrontation. Football players have a career that puts them at risk of physical harm and injury on a daily basis, but nobody should have to work in an environment where they believe their coworkers are intentionally trying to hurt them and their loved ones.
Obviously, none of us has been in that locker room, so none of us knows the full story. But I do not need to be there everyday to listen to that voicemail and know it has gone far beyond what should ever be considered acceptable.
Any player who blames Jonathan Martin for allowing this to happen quite frankly is an idiot, and any executive who agrees that should lose his job on the spot.
Enabling the bully
I know the NFL cultivates a tough-guy culture and running away doesn’t fit in with that, but this isn’t just some minor hazing we’re talking about. This is a serious verbal assault of a nature that may very well constitute a hate crime.
Martin would have been well within his rights to immediately take that voicemail to the police last summer, but instead he chose to put up with the maltreatment for several more months.
Blaming the victim rather than the bully only perpetuates the bullying culture. It is not the responsibility of the victim to put a forcible stop to bullying; rather, it is the duty of those in authority to quash aggression before it escalates to violence.
What’s most troubling about this situation is that athletes are supposed to be role models for the youth of this country, many of whom idolize these men as heroes.
Bullying is already prevalent among American youth. Young people are singled out based on their sexual preference, physical appearance, or any number of other reasons. Bullying drives far too many teenagers to despair and even, tragically, to suicide. How dare these professional football players stoop to blaming the victims rather than the perpetrators!
They are sending the message bullying is acceptable until the victim makes you stop. So that skinny little nerd with glasses on the bus who would have no chance against you in a fight is fair game. After all, it’s his fault, not yours!
Rather than criticizing Martin for running away, his peers should applaud him for making a smart decision. Sometimes the best choice is to go to the authorities instead of trying to handle something on one’s own. Martin found himself in one of those situations, correctly identified it, and took action.
Jonathan Martin should be commended, not condemned, for his courage.
(Update: since this article was written, it has come to my attention that some Dolphins players claim the voicemail was a joke and Martin shared it with his teammates while laughing about it. If true, this obviously changes the tenor of the story. But many of the comments which blame Martin, including Antrel Rolle’s, were made before this came to light, so the overall theme still applies. These players were blaming the victim, not the bully, and that is sending the absolute wrong message.)