The Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin saga has exploded into a national story this week, eliciting strong reactions from NFL pundits and stay-at-home moms alike. And that’s to be expected when you combine a topic that has received as much attention recently as bullying has in America’s highest-profile professional sports league.
But for me, it’s been more distressing to read the reactions from other NFL players — both current and past — and listening to arguments that Incognito is just a product of the NFL’s culture, placing more blame on Martin and his inability to “man up.” If Martin couldn’t stand up to a bully, he wasn’t fit for the NFL anyway.
I was bullied in sixth grade. It was never anything overly egregious compared to many of the stories I’ve heard, but it was enough to make riding the bus to and from school a living hell and make me temporarily question my worth as an individual. I’ve never talked to anyone about this — not even my parents, whom I tell everything.
Only losers get bullied. If other people know you’re getting bullied, that means they also know you are a loser. If you’re getting bullied, there must be something inherently wrong with you as a person. And if you stand any shot of climbing out of the depths of this misery, you’ll have to simply keep this as clandestine as possible and hope it just ends.
Such was my logic as an 11-year old, and I’m not too sure it would be too different 10 years later.
I know what was going through Martin’s head because the same thoughts went through mine. If I confront this person, it’s only going to get worse. And if I talk to someone about this and he or she acts on my behalf, that just confirms I’m too weak to advocate for myself. I can’t let people realize I’m a loser.
The NFL faces a myriad of challenges moving forward if it wants to remain relevant and avoid alienating its players and fans amid a landscape of a deeper understanding of the physical and lifelong risks associated with playing the game. But no issue is more pertinent for it to consider than finding a way to rewrite a culture that produces macho gladiators who seem less like human beings and more like robots purged of anything resembling sensitivity.
What’s more upsetting than anything else in this story is that Incognito likely thought he was doing Martin a service in trying to toughen up the purportedly soft underachiever. He probably thought of himself an incredible mentor capable of turning around the career of a young player who had previously lacked that necessary outside prodding. That was the only reason Martin wasn’t succeeding in football, and Incognito was going to provide salvation.
And he probably thought those things because his organization encouraged it.
Bullying is one of the most destructive crimes that occurs in our society. That’s not a radical statement, and it’s been said many times before. But it’s as true as statements come.
I’ve loved football since I was a little kid, and I don’t want it to change at all. But it has to. No longer can it be a place where players are expected to sacrifice themselves both physically and mentally just to provide entertainment for millions of complete strangers. This isn’t Ancient Rome.
That doesn’t mean the NFL has to become a drum circle in Golden Gate park. It just has to get with the times and realize that condoning practices such as bullying doesn’t fly anymore.
As Cal head coach Sonny Dykes said earlier this week regarding the hazing culture in football in the wake of a fight that sent one of his players to the hospital, “That’s one of the dinosaurs that’s dying off.”
And for players to condone Incognito’s actions shows the league is indeed stuck in the Ice Age. For its own sake, it needs to catch up with the times.