Jonathan Martin and me

A reflection on bullying

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Editor’s Note: This article contains graphic racial and sexual slurs that might be triggering to some people. 

Around 6 p.m. on Oct. 28, 2013, Jonathan Martin had had enough.

Martin, a former Stanford standout and at the time a starting offensive tackle for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, had just entered the team cafeteria. The Dolphins, who had begun the season with a promising 3-0 start, had played particularly poorly the day before (their fourth consecutive loss), giving up a first-half 17-3 lead. Many would note the poor offensive line play that led to six second-half sacks, including a pivotal turnover in the third quarter.

While Martin (who is half black) was in line for food, one of his teammates jeered loudly that he was a “stinky Pakistani.” As Martin approached where his fellow linemen were seated, his teammates all suddenly got up and left the table. At this, Martin threw his tray to the ground in frustration. He then turned around and left the team’s facility.

Martin would later allege this incident was part of a systemic, ongoing bullying problem that had been festering in the Dolphins’ locker room for months on end. According to the independent inquiry released last week, conducted by lawyer Ted Wells (who was contracted by league commissioner Roger Goodell to carry out the investigation), Martin was the victim of vicious streams of racial taunts, sexually-charged slurs and other forms of abuse. Most of this harassment came from fellow Miami offensive lineman and former team captain Richie Incognito, according to the Wells report.

In April of last year, during a particularly difficult stretch of bullying for Martin, he sent the following message to his mother:

“I figured out a major source of my anxiety … I used to get verbally bullied every day in middle school and high school, by kids that are half my size. I would never fight back, just get sad & feel like no one wanted to be my friend, when in fact I was just being socially awkward. Most people in that situation are witty & quick with sarcastic replies, I never have been. I’m awkward around people a lot of the time because I simply don’t know how to act around them, and am very in confident.”

—–

School wasn’t easy for me growing up. I was scrawny, horribly unathletic, socially awkward and never without a book in hand, often opting to spend recess reading on the side of the yard. For years, teachers had complained to my parents that they would catch me reading a book under the desk instead of paying attention to the lessons. By third grade, I had earned a nickname: “Noah Know-It-All.” At some point in fourth grade, the harassment escalated to an episode in the hallway, in which I was beat up by a girl in my class. After the school year ended, I transferred to a Jewish day school on the other side of the county.

In fifth grade, I experienced even worse bullying at my new school for the same kinds of things. I began to see a psychologist. I had suicidal thoughts; I constantly looked at open windows, viewing them as opportunities to relieve the pain of going to school every day. After I successfully moved past suicidal ideation, my psychologist recommended that I be verbally assertive with my bullies and dish back what they tried to throw at me. Instead, my pathetic retorts were tossed back at me and became more fodder for my bullies.

Jonathan Martin was passive with bullies growing up, in addition to just being socially awkward. These qualities were also what made me a consistent target of peer harassment wherever I went.

Richie Incognito took to national television to dispute Jonathan Martin’s claims in a Nov. 10 interview with Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer. Glazer, who is also a mixed martial arts trainer, disclosed at the beginning of the interview that he had a personal relationship with Incognito. Additionally, Incognito trained at an MMA gym with which Glazer was affiliated.

Glazer said he had printed out more than 1,100 of the text messages from Incognito’s phone. As Deadspin noted, after the interview, Glazer chose to highlight a couple of messages from Martin in particular for the Fox Sports audience, from the days after Martin left the Dolphins’ cafeteria. They read:

Martin: Wassup man? The world’s gone crazy lol I’m good tho congrats on the win

Martin: Yeah I’m good man. It’s insane bro but just know I don’t blame you guys at all it’s just the culture around football and the locker room got to me a little.

In the interview that preceded this supposed revelatory exchange between Martin and Incognito, Incognito denied he was a bully, instead insisting to Glazer, “My actions were coming from a place of love.”

According to the Wells report, in one January 2013 text, Incognito called Martin a “liberal mulatto bitch.”

The Wells report says that on April 6, 2013,  “Incognito called Martin and left him a voicemail message, in which he stated: Hey, wassup, you half-nigger piece of shit. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. I’ll shit in your fuckin’ mouth. I’m gonna slap your fuckin’ mouth, I’m gonna slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. Fuck you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”

During the 2013 football season, Martin came to practice one day without showering, and Incognito started calling him a “stinky Pakistani.” From the Wells report: “Martin said that Incognito’s teasing about body odor continued, even when he was wearing heavy deodorant, and that it bothered him significantly, particularly because it had a racial element.”

On Oct. 28, the day Jonathan Martin left the Miami Dolphins, the Wells report states that “(w)hen Martin arrived in the cafeteria for dinner around 6 pm, most of the offensive linemen were already sitting together at a table. According to Martin, while he was waiting in line for food, Incognito called out to him from the table, saying that he did not want Martin to join the group, and that he should move his ‘stinky Pakistani ass’ and sit by himself.”

My actions were coming from a place of love.

It was after this final taunt that Martin threw down his meal tray and left the team’s facility, checking himself into a hospital that evening.

—-

Over time, my depression eased, and with the support of my parents, I made new friends in the Boy Scout troop I joined, and I began to reconnect with some of my friends at the public school. The following year, I moved to the day school’s middle and high school campus. I have two memories from this time that I will never forget.

The first involves one of my bullies, a kid who lived in the same town as me, albeit on the other side. It was a Friday afternoon, and I’m at the barbershop around the corner from my house with my dad, in line for a haircut. I’m reading a magazine, and I get tapped on the shoulder. The bully who lived near me is standing there, saying, “What’s up?”

Instantly, it’s as if we’re old friends. We wait in line, talk for a bit about teachers, discuss maybe hanging out when we finish getting our haircuts, but my dad nixes the plan, as I have somewhere to go afterward. We say goodbye, and my dad stops to ask me on the way out why I wanted to hang out with someone who treated me so terribly.

I shrug. “Maybe he’s not so bad and just needs to be separate from everyone else at school.” When I see him around school later on, of course, the bullying continues unabated.

The second memory is in the classroom. I go up to my social studies teacher and tell her that my parents had bought the class’s textbook for me. I told her that I had been reading ahead in my own time and that I was really interested in the material. The teacher looked at me and said something like, “Why would you read ahead? We haven’t gotten there yet, you should just stick with where we are now.”

I had found something I loved in a place where there wasn’t much for me, and my teacher didn’t just dismiss it but, worse, suggested it was something bad to do, making me feel like my bullies perhaps weren’t entirely wrong about me.

Meanwhile, the bullying got worse. I developed nervous habits — I chewed the caps off of pens, I needed a stress ball to keep my hands occupied when I felt upset and I doodled on any available scrap of paper, my mind wandering to places far from the classroom. Until an incident toward the end of the year in which two boys taunted me in gym class by repeatedly calling me “dicklicker” repeatedly, there wasn’t a whole lot done to address the problem other than to tell me to “try harder.”

I transferred back to the public schools the following year, and the bullying ended as I made new friends and became reacquainted with old ones. After a long time, it had finally gotten better.

Based on what I remember from my own experience, I recognize fully well what Jay Glazer sought to accomplish by highlighting those messages from Martin specifically.

Among many sports journalists, a common joke is that a particularly inane or culturally obsolete perspective on a given issue can be classified mockingly as a “Hot Take.” This is, in part, a byproduct of the ESPN- and Bleacher Report-era style of “journalism,” in which sports journalists are encouraged to forgo dispassionate, reasoned discussion for a style that effectively turns every self-styled sports analyst into an asshole with a megaphone and a Valid Opinion. This same method of “journalism” also turns what should be clear-cut issues of right and wrong into matters that warrant “debate,” which more often than not reduces conversations over simple facts into arguments that end in a Jeff Lebowski-style conclusion: “Well, that’s just your opinion, man.”

It’s important to note that this brand of journalism enables and gives strength to bullies.

When confronted with the consequences of their actions, bullies often point toward moments of compassion and friendliness between themselves and their victims, arguing that it “complicates things” or discredits the victim’s claims of abuse. Just as I had done with my classmate in the barbershop, Jonathan Martin repeatedly reached out in friendship, both before and after these issues became public, because any victim of bullying finds solace when his or her oppressor chooses to relent.

When I asked Chris McLean, a psychologist with expertise in sports psychology on the counseling staff at UC Berkeley’s Tang Center, whether this fits the normal pattern of behavior for a bullying victim, he said, “It’s common. It makes sense within a bullying dynamic.” He told me that bullying victims think of it this way: “If you can be their friend, you can change the relationship. If you fit in more, you can be less of a target.”

Still, Incognito and the other teammates implicated in the report would not have been able take the bullying as far as they did without an environment that made it possible for them to do so. The Wells report also discusses that the Dolphin’s offensive line coach enforced a “Judas code” on the players, unofficially fining them for tattling on their teammates’ on-the-field screw-ups. Although not on its own a sign of harassment, this rule made it difficult for Martin to feel like he had authority figures to whom he could reach out.

I also know about “Judas codes” of my own, in which superiors moralize arbitrarily, turning on you and betraying your trust. It’s when your coaches or your teachers give up on you, effectively siding with your bullies because it’s the easy thing to do, because the bullies “might have a point.” Or worse yet, like Martin’s coach, they encourage a culture in which no one complains about anything, ever, because obviously, everything is OK, and no one is ever upset or hurt. This leaves victims with nowhere left to go and no one left to blame but themselves.

—-

As I began to sift through the Wells report on Jonathan Martin last week, I was moved to tears by the messages he exchanged with his parents when he was relating his ordeal. His father advised him to put on his best face and try to be as tough as possible with his teammates. His mother told him to “surround (himself) with positive people” and that “there are many wa(y)s to be a man, not just what works in a school or prison yard.” Much like the efforts of my own parents, who intervened repeatedly and thoughtfully on my behalf, these were not enough.

If outside intervention from parents and others doesn’t work in this scenario, then how do you effect culture change sufficient to prevent peer harassment in the future? I asked a center on the Cal football team, Matt Cochran, about this. He told me that Cal football doesn’t have a bullying or hazing culture, so he didn’t have firsthand experience. But he argued that “in order to lead on the football field, you need to be overly manly. That’s where the real problem is, the ideologies of what it takes to be a leader on a team and bring your team together and be a captain.”

On the topic of Incognito’s deeply racist remarks, Cochran said that if “someone says a racist word, nigger for example, no one can say that … to me, that’s bullying.” Cochran told me that he draws the line at this kind of verbal harassment, saying it’s worse than physical abuse. This racial aspect of the abuse Martin experienced is especially troubling; bullying naturally exploits power imbalances within a group dynamic, lending even greater authority to racists like Richie Incognito, who take the opportunity to project horrible stereotypes and bigoted venom onto their victims.

It’s at this point that I come back to something Chris McLean pointed out to me, which was that there weren’t institutional controls in the Dolphins organization. To McLean’s point about the Dolphins’ organizational failures, both their head trainer and offensive line coach have since been fired as a result of their supervision of and participation in bullying Jonathan Martin. McLean went on to suggest that because “there was not attention to (bullying) there, Martin was in a very vulnerable situation where he had to go along with the taunting and bullying to be accepted on the team.”

If sports teams and schools want to get serious about putting “institutional controls” in place, at every level they need to make sure there exist adequate checks to prevent peer harassment. Anti-bullying advocates have long argued for the role of “community-building” as instrumental to creating these controls. Additionally, it’s key to implement a zero-tolerance bullying policy or give victims the full support of the organization by providing counselors whose obligation is to the victims, as opposed to a school administration or the business side of football (as Martin suspected of the Dolphins’ staff psychologist).

Between elementary schools and a testosterone-laden NFL locker room, I’d like to think that had the right kind of atmosphere and community norms been established, and had the proper in-house counseling and mental health support made available, tragedies like my own and Martin’s never would have happened. But until those positive environments become the rule and not the exception, bullies will continually be empowered by those around them, and there will be more stories like Jonathan Martin’s and mine, not fewer.

Noah Kulwin is an associate editor of The Weekender. Contact him at [email protected]