A lot of crazy things go on in the world of professional football. It’s not that surprising since it’s a violent world populated by rich 20 somethings who by definition are freaks of nature. So I gave up long ago trying to make sense of some of the things that go on in the NFL. But the recent incident on the Miami Dolphins is a stunner to me. So I invited my friend and colleague, Dr. Patrick Stewart, an expert on nonverbal behavior, to offer a bit of explanation about what is going on in Miami.
Take it away Patrick…
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What is lost in the saga over the bullying of Miami Dolphin’s Jonathan Martin by fellow offensive lineman Richie Incognito is not so much that bullying appears to have taken place, but that the form of bullying by macho pro football players is so very… female in its strategy and execution.
To an outside observer, some of the behaviors by Incognito, including a lunchroom incident in which all the players at a table reportedly stood up and left Martin sitting alone after he arrived, seem reminiscent of the 2004 movie “Mean Girls.” But here, the mean girl clique—“the Plastics”—has been replaced by a table of offensive linemen.
What The Heck Is Going On Here?
Men have long hazed, even bullied, each other as a means of sorting out their social dominance hierarchies. However, this activity has tended to be physical in nature, or at the very least, has involved face-to-face conflict with verbal and physical confrontation combined to cause an in-person loss of “face” by the target.
Mainly, this approach is employed as a means of making sure that the hazed/bullied target knows his place in the dominance hierarchy—in other words, lower than the rest of the established members of the group. Whether observed in non-human primates such as chimpanzees in their natural surroundings or humans in nightclubs, boardrooms, courtrooms, and even theatrical productions, aggression, even if it is subtle and implicit, towards others is part and parcel of how males interact with each other to sort out their social place in dominance hierarchies.
Indeed, men maintain their social relationships through aggressive humor that outsiders may consider at the very least ridicule, if not sometimes bordering on offensive. However, on closer inspection this humor can strengthen social bonds if accompanied by nonverbal cues of affiliation.
In other words, ridicule alongside gestures such as smiles, laughter, and playful physical behavior may serve to bring men (and boys) closer together by the joke teller emphasizing the weakness of a target through the joke, while at the same time showing he likes and supports the target through reassuring behavior, as seen in the joke teller’s smiles, laughter, and overall playfulness.
Many women find this sort of behavior mystifying to the point of becoming upset that men would treat each other in such a manner. This is likely because females prefer a “tend and befriend” strategy that builds and strengthens the network-like connections between women in order to provide stability to survive a strife-filled environment and, often at the same time, raise children.
Conflict, when it does occur, is often over who is the “nicest” and thus an integral part of the network of relationships. And when serious conflict occurs, back-channel rumor mills and ostracism are the strategies used—as seen in the movie “Mean Girls” where the “burn book” is used to insult and marginalize those high school girls not living up to the standards of “the Plastics.”
From High School Halls to NFL Practice Fields
This makes the Martin-Incognito saga all the more perturbing. While male strategies of physical conflict and face-to-face intimidation are to be expected when males group together, the techniques used by reported bully Richie Incognito—texting insults, leaving threatening phone messages, and coordinated isolation—is so… not very “manly.”
Instead, the behind-the-back maneuvers and ostracism in the lunchroom appear to be more of a female stratagem. Indeed, this case sounds more like the story of another Floridian, Rebecca Sedwick, the teenage girl who was “bullied-to-death” through social media and text-messaging.
Why Did This Happen?
The question remains: why did this happen? Is it due to football being a collision sport in which there is a “win-at-all-costs” mentality in which players do whatever is called for to win, with this sort of behavior a natural outgrowth of football culture?
I don’t know—I’ve only been a part of contact sports such as rugby (15 years of playing and coaching) and grappling (judo and BJJ for 6 years). And while I have taken part in my fair share of dominance behavior, both receiving and giving, and have become a better and saner man as a result of finding my place in the world of men, incidents of this nature, to my knowledge, never occurred.
Sure, there was stupidity, but never the concerted malevolence that led to the mental breakdown of a player. Even when I was bullied, for three terrifying years when I was a middle-school student at a southern Christian school, the confrontations were always premised on physical violence from my male classmates. Thankfully, I was able to escape to my books once I got home. Sadly, this was not the case for Jonathan Martin as the intimidation followed him via social media and text messages.
A More Sexually Integrated World?
Alternatively, it could be the result of a more sexually integrated world in which the collective social-strategy toolboxes of men and women are no longer segregated, but are equally available to all regardless of the ends to which they are put to use. As the proud brother of three highly successful sisters, I have seen them use male strategies to compete in the corporate and academic worlds out of necessity.
There is no reason to believe that men would not use female-typical strategies. And while this might sound strange, the saga of the bullying of Jonathan Martin by Richie Incognito may finally make us face and address the reality that the physical bruises might pale in comparison to the psychological scars inflicted by less direct, more psychologically damaging “female-typical” strategies.
Now, that, according to one of the TV “mean girls,” would be “fetch.”
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For more information, see:
De Waal, F. (2007). Chimpanzee politics: Power and sex among apes. JHU Press.
Salter, F. K. (1995). Emotions in command: A naturalistic study of institutional dominance. New York: Oxford University Press.
Stewart, P. A. (2012). Debatable Humor: Laughing Matters on the 2008 Presidential Primary Campaign. Lexington Books.
Taylor, S. E. (2006). Tend and Befriend Biobehavioral Bases of Affiliation Under Stress. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(6), 273-277.