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When Bullying is Dismissed as “Joking” Everybody Loses

Miami Dolphins story regarding allegations of bullying becomes national news

Sports culture, in a lot of ways, represents a magnification of traditional constructions of masculinity. The appeal of professional sports and the National Football League (NFL) in particular, translates to many stories becoming not just sports-related news, but making national headlines. One in particular that has been both baffling and irresistible has been the allegations of bullying in the locker room of the Miami Dolphins, brought on by player Jonathan Martin against fellow offensive lineman Richie Incognito.

In a nutshell, Martin has accused Incognito of relentless bullying, extortion, and voicemails were released to the media that Incognito made on Martin’s phone, using the “N” word at will (Martin is black, Incognito is white), threatening his family, and using hostile language tinged with inappropriate racial epithets. After commentators initially jumped to Martin’s defense and Incognito was characterized as a relentless bully, backlash of Martin and the possibility of his “misrepresenting” his relationship with his teammate emerged after multiple Dolphins’ players spoke out in defense of Incognito and claimed the exchanges between the two were taken out of context.

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When Incognito finally had his turn in the media spotlight, this is what he had to say:

“Incognito also accused Martin of using equally crass language, claiming that was the nature of their relationship. ‘When words are put in a context, I understand why a lot of eyebrows get raised,’ Incognito told Fox Sports during the interview, which aired Sunday. ‘But people don't know how Jon and I communicate to one another. For instance, a week before this went down, Jonathan Martin texted me on my phone, 'I will murder your whole F'ing family’… I knew that was coming from a brother. I knew it was coming from a friend. I knew it was coming from a teammate.’” (Walker, 2013, para 3-4).

Is anyone else just stunned by these revelations? I mean, I understand that males tease one another, oftentimes relentlessly—I have a brother and have been raised around many boys, but, how exactly is threatening to murder someone’s entire family indicative of brotherly love?

The story has had so many twists and turns that is virtually impossible to know what reports are accurate, or who to believe, according to the ever changing allegiances of sports commentators. Those elements of the story are beyond the scope of this particular commentary. However, what I find to be particularly disturbing is that in the wake of the allegations, players have been rallying around Incognito and defending him, dismissing Martin’s concerns as indicative of his “loner” status and cloaking clear breeches of decency as “joking” behavior that has always been a part of the Miami locker room environment.

For instance, one article in defense of Incognito posted on a sports related website lists Martin’s apparent shyness and lack of maintaining eye contact with his teammates as somehow indicative of his loner status, wherein he was excluding himself rather than being alienated from his teammates or being targeted in the locker room. The same article reveals in a poll that of over 500 internet users, 50% of them agree that what Incognito did to Martin was not evidence of bullying, and that Martin either misinterpreted Incognito’s actions, or, “something else is going on” (KIH004, 2013). If using racial epithets against someone and targeting them mercilessly in a professional work environment doesn’t constitute bullying, then what does?

Moreover, Incognito’s interview goes on to share the following:

“Incognito confirmed that he did leave the controversial voice mail message to Martin last April that included racial slurs and a threat to kill Martin. Despite the scathing language, Incognito said his actions ‘came from a place of love’ and that vulgar communication was normal among Dolphins players.” (Walker, 2013, para 7-8).

Other articles have noted that despite being white, Incognito was given “honorary black status,” whatever that means, and thus somehow he was exempt from the regular standards of decency that dictate the use of racially charged epithets is not okay and indicative of bigotry—so much so that teammates regardless of their race are standing in his defense. And once again, the target of bullying is being left on his own, to his own devices.

As one eloquent writer for ESPN, in remarking on the culture of corruption in Miami reflects:

“The Dolphins tagged him [Martin] the ‘Big Weirdo.’ The Dolphins held up Richie Incognito as the ultimate role model for offensive linemen. Incognito was a Pro Bowler. He was a member of the six-man leadership council. It makes perfect sense for a kid like Martin to befriend Incognito and try to fit in. I'm sure they were best friends, for a time. I'm sure Incognito offered Martin physical protection on the football field. It's standard operating procedure for a prison-yard bully to cultivate a relationship that is equal parts fear, love and disrespect. It's how you turn a guy out and make him grab your belt loop.” (Whitlock, 2013, para 17).

The NFL is an institution that is breeding a number of types of structural violence within its members, both on and off the field. It is time for this leader in professional sports to take a good, hard look at what values about masculinity are being promoted by this institution, both formally and implicitly by the types of behaviors that are being condoned, dismissed, or blatantly rewarded in many cases. It is getting increasingly challenging to justify my own fandom of this league, particularly in the wake of this most recent—but sadly, not final—scandal regarding off the field behavior of some of its most prominent players.

KIH004 (2013). Lydon Murtha Gives Context to Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin Story. SB Nation: The Phinsider. Retrieved on November 10, 2013 from: http://www.thephinsider.com/2013/11/7/5076706/lydon-murtha-speaks... .

Walker, J. (2013). Richie Incognito Deflects Blame. Espn.com. Retrieved on November 10, 2013 from: http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/9955599/richie-incognito-miami-... .

Whitlock, J. (2013). Martin Walked in to Twisted World. Espn.com. Retrieved on November 10, 2013 from: http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/9941696/jonathan-martin-walked-... .

 

Azadeh Aalai, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Montgomery College in Maryland and an adjunct at George Washington University. She is the author of Understanding Aggression. more...

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