When the media bubble bursted on the player situation on the Miami Dolphins team this week, it would seem like bullying issues in the real world are some new idea. It would also seem, based on the responses from NFL players and personnel, that bullying is a non-issue in the NFL and that Jonathan Martin should have handled it differently. In my opinion, not only are the NFL personnel wrong about Martin and that bullying is a non-issue in the NFL, bullying is perhaps one of the most pervasive, systemic problems of our society.
Let’s start with idea of bullying. Bullying in the adult “real world” exists in a way not dissimilar to bullying in schools. Most people typically associate bullying as an activity confined to the borders of our adolescence, mean school yard pranks and embarrassment. Rather than claim it as bullying, in the grown up environment we tend to use words such as harassment, defamation, and extortion. The act of using someone’s superior strength to intimidate another into doing something is by definition bullying. Martin was verbally harassed, threatened and intimidated. Jonathan Martin, for all intensive purposes, was bullied.
When you hear NFL players defending Incognito and personnel, such as current Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland, say that Jonathan Martin should “punch” Incognito, you realize how Martin may have felt with seemingly no one to turn to for help. Sure, the NFL is a a league of hyper-aggressive males and confronting bullies may be the option many in the NFL would advocate for dealing with the testosterone charged lockers rooms, but it is literally only one option of many.
What is perhaps even more upsetting than this brutish, closed mindset of the NFL personnel, is how Martin was basically chastised for his decision to seek help. In an essay written by ex-Dolphin Lydon Murtha that was published by Sports Illustrated, Murtha claims Martin “broke the code” by going to the media and that he should “handle it indoors”. A lot of NFL players, including his current teammates, have echoed similar views about going to the press and keeping club issues in-house. What has gone unacknowledged is the fact that Jonathan Martin didn’t go to the press at all, but left the team directly to seek medical attention elsewhere. It was only after reports of Martin going to find help he wasn’t finding in the Dolphins organization that the reports started piling in about Martin and Incognito. Martin’s lawyers and agent have spoken on his behalf and given evidence to back up Martin’s decision to leave the organization, but Martin himself has not spoken in public since leaving the Miami Dolphins. Unless checking into a hospital for emotional distress is really backwards, Martin didn’t break any “code”.
On a final note, the notion that Jonathan Martin couldn’t handle the pressures of the NFL, wasn’t enough of a man to play the game is absurd. While it helps to have hyper-aggressive athletes fight tooth and nail on and off the field, that shouldn’t exclude players with just as much talent that lack that kind of persona. Jonathan Martin was a second round draft pick (42nd overall) who clearly has the talent to play football at the highest level. Mike Mayock’s (NFL.com) draft analysis of Martin states that he was one of two tackles that could be considered “elite” from that draft and that he is a, “First-round talent right here, tremendous arm length. I call him a little bit of a finesse player. Doesn’t mean he’s not tough, but he’s so good with his feet and understands angles. I believe the Dolphins just got themselves a starter on either the right or left side.” Although Mayock subtly references to Martin’s personality and play as “finesse” his overall impression is a starting, NFL-caliber player that rated as a steal for the Dolphins in the second round. While it remains to be seen what will happen with Jonathan Martin, it’s clear that the NFL’s path to rebranding its image has an added wrinkle of bullying, which is both ingrained and to an extent tolerated by many in its subculture.