How often do we hear, not only at the professional levels but all the way down to the youth levels in sports that, “what’s said in the dressing room should stay in the dressing room”.
In other words, anyone—adult or youngster—who dares to not conform to hazing, or refuses to tolerate abuse or mistreatment directed their way is not a “man”. They don’t know how to “take it”. We are all—parents, coaches, administrators, etc.—supposed to turn our heads and accept inappropriate, cruel or simply unethical and ignorant behaviour because “boys will be boys”.
That’s garbage, plain and simple. It always has been and still is.
The latest “bullying” story comes to us not from some local amateur team, or a kids’ league, but from the world of professional football. And my hope is that the incident (or series of incidents) which caused second-year NFL’er Jonathan Martin of the Miami Dolphins to recently leave the squad suddenly will wake people up all across the board.
After bolting the team in a highly distressed state prior to a Thursday evening game the week of October 28, details leaked out that described a series of alleged threatening behaviours on the part of one of Martin’s teammates, Richie Incognito. While Incognito reportedly denied at first any unacceptable behaviour on his part (and the team initially tried to claim there was no proof of bullying) it was announced on November 4 that the offending player had in fact been suspended indefinitely.
What became clear over time as the investigation continued is that there had been a long pattern of abusive behaviour, including the fact that that Incognito allegedly used racial slurs in certain forms of communication when interacting on social media with Martin.
What we don’t know is whether the use of highly inappropriate racial language was what actually caused the Dolphins to suspend Incognito.
A fair question to ask is: would the team have reacted if they had not discovered proof of racially inappropriate comments? Clearly, such actions are suspension- worthy in any walk of life, but the follow-up question is: why did the behaviour need to get to that level before the Dolphins acted?
Surely no one, absolutely no one in this day and age would, could or should tolerate racial (or other) discrimination of any kind. But there are all kinds of behaviours, comments and actions that don’t include that awful language or type of attitude that are nonetheless despicable and worthy of not only scrutiny but of a swift and decisive response.
Bullying, as we have written many times before in this space—whether in Grade 4 or in the NFL—is indefensible and should not be tolerated. Full stop.
This behaviour is learned somewhere. It is encouraged somewhere. It grows and spreads like a disease if parents and adults (who, sadly, are often at the root of how this hateful behaviour develops) don’t deal with it at the early ages.
The world is full of “real men”, to use that expression, in the world of athletics and all other walks of life, who would never and have never stooped to behaving like an entitled, ignorant cement-head with no sense of values and no moral compass.
Yet the sports world seems to somehow still embrace this age-old, archaic attitude of “what goes on the in dressing room should stay there”. Really? What is being hidden there that others should not hear or see? Why can’t it be exposed?
Of course there are all kinds of good, positive characteristics that should be associated with being part of a team. Helping a teammate when they are down, assisting them when they have personal troubles, embracing their differences when it comes to what we may feel is “the norm”. Just being a considerate, thoughtful, supportive colleague in a team environment. That’s all good.
Athletics can indeed teach us many good things. Sports can help build character. But when I see a story like this, it just reminds me, and should remind us all, that we have a long way to go. Society has evolved over the last hundred or more years. Thoughtful, determined, courageous people have fought for equal rights—in every sense—for all, regardless of colour, religion or ethnicity. We don’t accept bigotry. We don’t allow harassment or hatred to be shown toward “groups” that had been considered minorities or unfairly isolated decades ago, whether it be women, those with physical or mental challenges, or individuals with a “different” sexual orientation than the majority.
Yet on this question of bullying—which is often rooted in group think and the worst kind of human attitudes and behaviour, including in the world of youth, collegiate and professional sports—most of us are silent.
The Dolphins have a major issue on their hands, and a simple suspension won’t rid that team of the toxicity that reportedly surrounds it. But my guess is they are not the only professional sports team that has similar problems. It took a courageous young athlete to finally say, essentially, “I’ve had enough” to wake the sports world up.
But will people really wake up?
I have little doubt there many NFL’ers who are thinking—if not outright saying—that Martin should just toughen up, that if he can’t take it, he should do something else for a living.
And if that is really what other players think, if that is really the attitude they have and thus the example they are setting for our young people (prospective athletes or not) we have an even deeper societal problem than I suspect. Those individuals need only look in the mirror if someone they love ever faces abuse or bullying for any reason, because their attitude has delivered the biggest, most damaging—and most toxic—message possible.
Because if that is indeed the prevailing view, how long will it take society to turn this ship around? I cringe at the answer.