The Jonathan Martin Case Puts the NFL in a Precarious Situation

Jonathan Martin of the Miami Dolphins having left the team due to what’s been referred to as locker room bullying has put the NFL in a delicate situation on how to regulate their players.

Years ago, this wouldn’t have been an issue. Martin would be declared weak and told that if he wanted to be an NFL player, he had to toughen up. As a former second round draft pick, the young offensive tackle has obvious value. He’s 6’5”, 310 pounds and teams don’t waste second round draft picks on players they’ll dispose of for a solvable problem. If this had happened before the NFL tried to become such a fan-friendly entity with crossover appeal, it’s doubtful it would have been a story at all.

Times are different. The simplistic approach says that when dealing with a group mentality with people in an aggressive, high-pressure environment, the way to put a stop to this type of behavior is to handle it physically. Fights within a sports team happen all the time whether they’re reported or not. The only time they are reported are when they occur in public or there’s an injury of some sort. Other than that, they’re occasionally necessary to clear out bad blood or, as in Martin’s case, to make his teammates cease being so abusive.

Could Martin have taken the supposed ringleader, Richie Incognito and given him a beating to send a message to him and the rest of the team to knock it off? Incognito is about the same size as Martin, but usually just the effort is enough to make a bully back away.

Perhaps Martin doesn’t want to resort to that.

Martin went to Stanford and both of his parents are attorneys who went to Harvard. When a physical confrontation is necessary, it’s not fear that stops the more cerebral and intelligent person from acting. It’s the potential consequences and weighing the results that keeps them from taking that step.

“What if I really hurt him?

“What if I go to jail?”

“Do I want to play this game if it makes me into something I’m not?”

They’re legitimate questions.

For whatever reason, Martin chose to take a different route and walked away. The whole episode is being portrayed as “Martin was picked on and he left the team.” It might not be that at all. No one knows the whole story. It could be a combination of issues that led to his departure. Whether or not he’ll be back is up to him.

To believe that the intra-team treatment of players is an isolated incident is naïve at best and stupid at worst.

The public response to a cellphone video that Giants punter Steve Weatherford made of Prince Amukamara being dumped into ice water by Jason Pierre-Paul was indicative of the culture. Weatherford posted it on Twitter and it became an “incident.” Was this hazing? Was it bullying?

If it’s guys goofing around, it’s one thing. If it reaches the level where the target doesn’t want to come to work, it’s another. It’s hard to blame the players because how are they supposed to know when to stop if there’s not a baseline criteria and standards of which action is in what category?

There’s a fine line between hazing and abusiveness. There’s also a fine line between looking like the school kid saying “I’m telling on you” to have it handled by a person in position of power and reporting a workplace violation. Many times, telling the boss or the teacher or the police about it is going to make matters worse. In the case of the Dolphins, what precisely is coach Joe Philbin going to do about it? He’s not exactly intimidating and doesn’t have the personality of someone the players will be frightened of. Much has been made of Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano and his staff violating what’s supposed to be a “players only” sanctuary of the locker room with spies and perceived inappropriate venturing into their territory. If the coaches aren’t supposed to go in there, then they’re not supposed to mess with the hierarchy of the room and any rituals that might go on either.

In the Giants incident, coach Tom Coughlin said that he didn’t know about it until he was told and would take care of it. Rest assured he did. Will Philbin? Or will he hem and haw and be wishy-washy about it hoping it goes away? Would anyone be scared enough to listen if he told them to stop?

A strong-handed head coach doesn’t necessarily have to be a stern, glowering taskmaster like Coughlin or Mike Tomlin; it doesn’t have to be someone whose personality permeates the room and the players know he’ll be ruthless in dealing with a problem as Jimmy Johnson was. Andy Reid and Mike Holmgren are soft-spoken puffballs, but the players know they’re in charge. And that’s without mentioning the Emperor Palpatine of the NFL, Bill Belichick.

With a coach, it comes down to this: Is it affecting the team? Since Martin left, it’s affecting the team, therefore it’s a problem that must be addressed. Other than that, they probably wouldn’t notice if they knew about it at all.

Given the nature of this story and the mere use of the word “bullying,” it puts the NFL in a precarious position on how to proceed. The NFL is taking part in anti-bullying campaigns and trying to educate young people on why not to do it and what to do if it does happen. So what is the NFL’s recourse if it’s happening with one of their own franchises to the point that the player who was reportedly subjected to the bullying got up and left?

The NFL Players Association is looking into it and there’s no doubt that Commissioner Roger Goodell is monitoring this closely. In combination with the league-wide efforts to take part in anti-bullying initiatives and that it’s making the league look bad, this happening so publicly will get some results. Whether it will stop throughout the league is the question. The answer is probably no.

Like the code red in the Marine Corps and made famous in A Few Good Men, these hazing rituals are part of the culture. On some level, the players, coaches and participants might think it’s a necessary part of building a bond and indicates acceptance into the group. Once something happens to draw it into public scrutiny, there will be the pretense of responding to the issue to prevent it from happening again, then it will be forgotten about. It’s been part of the dynamic forever. One story about a football player who decided he’d had enough won’t alter that fact.




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