At first blush, you would not think a professional football player could find himself the victim of bullying. Bullies are usually the big guys, and NFL players are the biggest big guys.
But the ongoing story about Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin being bullied by a teammate to the point where he left the team indicates the unusual social atmosphere that exists in locker rooms and clubhouses in sports, whether it be in professional, collegiate, or high school sports.
The elephant in the room regarding the story is this: What will happen to an athlete who declares himself to be homosexual? If Martin can be bullied because he was not considered tough enough, what is going to happen to the first openly gay athlete still active with his team?
The bullying story in a nutshell is that Martin, a second-year player out of Stanford, was determined to be “not tough enough’’ by NFL standards and the toughest guy on the team was encouraged to do what he had to in order to “toughen up” Martin. He sent threatening emails and texts, and also tried to make Martin a social outcast within the team, prompting teammates to give Martin the cold shoulder, to ostracize him.
Martin is being criticized for not handling the situation “like a man’’ by confronting his tormentor. The thought is “what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room,’’ and that Martin should have handled the situation “like a man’’ and let the bully know he wanted it to stop.
According to reports, Martin is not like most NFL players. He is quiet and thoughtful. He is the perfect target for bullying, and may have suffered at the hands of bullies throughout his pre-NFL life.
“I can see where somebody that’s a bully will take advantage of him, and rather than him say anything would just hold it inside,’’ said Martin’s high school football coach Vic Eumont, who said Martin just wanted to make people happy.
When I traveled with the Chicago Bulls, there were players who were not “one of the guys’’ and suffered because of it, but not to a dangerous extent. Bill Cartwright, an extremely quiet and thoughtful man, was forever chided verbally because he was not the playful NBA type. Brian Williams, who eventually changed his name to Bison Dele and disappeared in the Bahamas, was a pensive player who, even when he smiled, did so in a quiet way.
While I personally enjoyed the camaraderie that exists in a locker room or clubhouse, I was never a big believer in “boys will be boys.” I don’t remember personally being the target of bullies, but I knew kids who were, and I always hated that aspect of the male character.
(We are finding out now that girls can bully as well, and there have been several cases where girls have been bullied to the point of suicide by other girls).
Much was made of the news that former Philadelphia 76ers forward Jason Collins is gay, and people said the only reason he let the world know was because he was at the end of his contract and felt he could announce it without putting himself through the locker room abuse that some expect to follow such a bombshell report.
If Martin could be bullied for being thoughtful and quiet, what is going to happen to an openly gay player in the NFL? What happens to such athletes at the college or high school level, where presumably the “men” are less mature than professional athletes?
It is often said that bullying is a symptom of a lack of self-confidence, a kind of bluster used to cover up a personal conflict. The person who is bullied, however, is probably the person most likely to accept the bully for his or her difficulties if given the chance to do so.
We are now ankle deep in the 21st century and we are still dealing with immature issues such as bullying. I wonder if we will ever grow up.