Culbreath: When bullying goes incognitoWritten by Matt 'Shaggy' Culbreath | | firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s the strangest, saddest story to come out of professional sports in a long time: a professional football player leaves his team after suffering an emotional breakdown. The cause: a fellow teammate’s constant harassment, including threats and racial slurs. The fallout? The strangest collection of people taking both sides that I’ve ever seen outside of politics.
Of course, I’m talking about the story of Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito, both offensive linemen of the Miami Dolphins. Martin, a second-year player, has checked himself into a hospital to cope with “emotional distress”. What caused the distress hasn’t been released officially, but it’s been widely reported that he has been the target of sustained bullying by teammates, led by Incognito.
The story only gets stranger from there: reports of Miami coaches asking Incognito to “toughen [Martin] up”. Some veteran players tell reporters that Incognito just as much of a bastard as reported. Others defend him — they say he’s a jokester, that’s his sense of humor, and he viewed Martin as a little brother. Some coaches wish Martin would have spoke up sooner, others think he should have handled it himself.
The story sounds horrific, because it absolutely is. It also sounds like it goes way deeper than anything we can even scratch on the surface. Why are players defending a guy who was videotaped storming around a restaurant with his shirt off and dropping n-bombs? Admittedly, I’m not, nor have I ever been an athlete. Is this a “keep it in the locker room” thing that players are now having to uncomfortably address in public? Or did Incognito honestly not realize that Martin didn’t understand his “brand of humor” (however brutish it might be), and is just as blindsided by the news of the second-year player’s breakdown as everyone else?
The statement I had made on the blog I write on wspd.com revolved around unchecked childhood bullying. Sure, there are efforts to fight it, but sometimes low-level teasing gets brushed aside as “boys being boys”. But as I stewed over it as the story developed, this sounds like it could be a story out of any office building, only cranked up to eleven. The new guy in the office seems quiet and distant, and now the loud guy is always on him. Is he trying to motivate him? Or is he harassing him? Is he misunderstood? Or is he disturbed? It’s not often that a victim on that side is going to have the extreme reaction that Martin had, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility for the guy to leave the office, or request a transfer. Nobody wants to be the snitch, but if you’re afraid of what could happen with your co-workers, someone needs to say something, right?
Very quietly this week, another NFL player stepped away from his team: John Moffitt of the Denver Broncos quit football in two simple steps: he called the front office to let them know he wasn’t returning, and then went to Twitter to tell the fans: “Football was fun by my head hurts-haha kidding roger goodell. I’m on to new things, thanks to everyone along the way!!!” His reason: he decided he wasn’t having fun anymore, and there was no reason to put his health on the line for something he was no longer enjoying. He’s leaving about a million dollars on the table, but he’s looking forward to getting back to his family. Who knows if the locker room culture in Denver is anything like the culture we’re now hearing about in Miami. Or if Miami’s locker room is anything like what we’re hearing from Tampa Bay, where the players have just about tuned out head coach Greg Schiano’s “scream first, ask questions later” style of coaching.
Yes, a locker room is fueled by testosterone, run by people whose entire livelihoods depend on not only physical ability, but mental attributes such as aggressiveness, bordering on downright mean. Put your normal office personell situations in that hyperactive cocktail of hormones, and who knows what’s going to emerge? Very clearly, Incognito was overly aggressive with Thomas, but the real question is going to be how everyone reacts now that these facts are out in the open. And, more importantly, do either of these two players ever return to the game? It would take an act of valor for Jonathan Thomas to get back on the field. It would take the ultimate act of contrition for me to even consider Richie Incognito wearing a uniform again.