The Jonathan Martin Case Puts the NFL in a Precarious Situation

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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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Strasburg Ambiguity Mars The Nationals’ Magical Season

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How can anyone involved with the Nationals justify looking into Stephen Strasburg’s face and telling him that while the team is on its way to the playoffs and is a legitimate World Series contender that because of a random number of innings and the edicts of one person’s dictatorial, unchecked authority, he can’t be a part of it?

The number (supposedly 160 innings or thereabouts), so random and capricious with no ironclad guarantee that it’s going to help him stay healthy over the long-term, predicates that Strasburg should resist and use his power over the situation to escape it.

There are so many compelling stories with the Nationals that the looming shutdown of Strasburg is marring all they’ve accomplished and it’s coming down to the self-proclaimed final word, GM Mike Rizzo. Given the number of GMs who’ve been celebrated in recent years and either found themselves fired (Omar Minaya); on the hotseat (Jack Zduriencik, Dan O’Dowd); or seen their reputations shattered (Billy Beane), Rizzo might not even be there in 2015. Manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty are going along to get along, but Johnson’s style in his prior stops and the atmosphere in which he spent his formative baseball years—the Earl Weaver Orioles of Jim Palmer throwing 300+ innings—do you really think Johnson, at age 69, wants to hold back on the once-in-a-lifetime arm of Strasburg when he might be writing his ticket to the Hall of Fame with another World Series win? A win that could hinge on Strasburg being allowed to pitch? Do you believe that McCatty, who saw his own career demolished by Billy Martin’s and Art Fowler’s abuse, doesn’t understand the limits of a pitcher and when he needs to have the brakes put on? It’s inexplicable to hire qualified people to do their jobs and not let them do them; to have experienced baseball people whose in-the-trenches understanding of the game are dismissed in the interests of self-protection and “I’m not gonna be the one that’s blamed if he gets hurt.”

That’s what Rizzo is doing. It’s got nothing to do with studies or protecting the player; Rizzo is protecting himself. No one else.

The implementation of pitcher workloads has become a circular defense and is a logical fallacy. Because Jordan Zimmerman underwent the same Tommy John surgery as Strasburg and was limited to 160 innings last season, it’s presented as validation for Strasburg’s final number of 160 or so innings. But they’re two different pitchers with two different levels of talent and two different thresholds along with dozens of other variables that aren’t being publicly accounted for in the interests of a short and sweet, salable list of “reasons” to place Strasburg on the sidelines as the kid who has to take his piano lessons while the other kids in the neighborhood out enjoying the sun and playing ball.

No one’s saying to abuse him as the Cubs, chasing a dream and trying to slay ghosts, did to Kerry Wood in 1998. But to just say STOP!!! and be done with it is a different form of abuse.

Strasburg doesn’t want to have his season ended prematurely, but if the Nats get to the playoffs or World Series, he’s not going to be a participant; or if he is, it will be after a month of barely pitching. It’s ludicrous and could also hinder his career rather than save it. Strasburg has to have some recourse. Saying all the right things and being a willing accomplice are separate. If I were Strasburg and his representatives, I’d push back. Agent Scott Boras, no stranger to hardball as a former player and negotiator, knows the terrain of arm-twisting organizations in the interests of his clients. Strasburg and Boras have a large share of the say-so in this situation. The point of power is to use it. If it’s put out publicly that Strasburg won’t sign any long-term deal with the Nationals if they continue to put their constraints on his career, what’s going to happen? Strasburg could refuse to report to the club next season and force his way out of Washington; he could be a test case because the Nats are not operating in his best interests. The blowback of Strasburg tearing at his chains legally and in a public relations blitz would be fierce and Rizzo wouldn’t have a choice but to back down.

The number of great players in sports who have been part of teams that made it to the pinnacle of team achievement or came thisclose but didn’t close the deal are legion. Ernie Banks, Don Mattingly and the new Hall of Famer Ron Santo are three of dozens of examples who would’ve traded years of their careers for a title shot.

Exacerbating this travesty is that the Nationals—or simply Rizzo and Rizzo alone—didn’t take steps such as the 6-man rotation to specifically prevent the need to end Strasburg’s season in September.

It’s easy to suggest that what the Nats have built will be sustainable and they’ll have multiple opportunities to make it back again and again; that with Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and the young pitching staff, they’ll be contenders for years to come. Facts and history say otherwise. It’s not true that they’re absolutely going to have chance after chance. Ask Dan Marino if he’s stunned by never having made it back to the Super Bowl after his sophomore season in which he demolished the NFL record books and carried the Dolphins to the NFL’s ultimate game. Then ask him if he’d have sat by quietly if the coaches and front office decided that he’s thrown too many passes after 13 games and they were sitting him down to lengthen his career. You can say it’s not the same thing, but it actually is the same thing. Strasburg is a baseball player; he’s a pitcher. Sometimes, regardless of how they’re handled and babied, they get injured as happened with Strasburg two years ago. Nothing is to be gained by sitting him down with numbers that have no basis in reality. Yet that’s what the Nats are doing and it’s not about protecting anyone other than the GM of the team, which makes it exponentially worse.

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