Sunday, November 10, 2013

On Bullying and NFL Culture

I have always been enthralled by NFL football. Growing up, I was amazed by the super-human strength, speed, and dexterity exhibited by its players, and how they seemed to (almost) always get up from bone-crunching hits and keep playing. Over the past decade though, it has become increasingly clear just what a physical and mental toll the game takes on its players, with the NFL's earlier attempts to deny links between concussions and lasting brain damage in the form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy at the forefront of recent reports.

For some observers, the NFL has definitely lost some of its luster. However, the league's popularity does not seem to be waning. The week-to-week dramas on and off the field have me convinced that the NFL is America's #1 reality show. What I wonder is whether this scrutiny can result in anything positive? Or will the NFL just take advantage of the increased attention, whether good or bad, for gain and profit? I think how the league handles the latest scandal will be instructive.

For the past week, there have been numerous news stories about Jonathan Martin of the Miami Dolphins, who left the team and checked into a hospital for emotional distress following alleged bullying by teammates. Martin, who graduated from Stanford, has made public some disturbing voicemails and text messages from Richie Incognito, a player who was kicked off two different college football teams.

What I haven't heard discussed much on sports shows is what exactly is bullying? The officially accepted definition is that bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance, which is repeated over time. From this definition, it's quite clear that bullying was in fact what was going on. Incognito, an NFL veteran and a member of the team's player leadership council, is clearly in a position of power over the much younger Martin, and the abuse certainly was not a one-time incident, starting with Martin's rookie year and continuing into this season.

Watching the Fox NFL pregame show this morning, I was dismayed but not surprised by some of what I heard. Jimmy Johnson talked about how Martin was not drafted until the second round, meaning some teams must have thought there were some issues with him. Michael Strahan said that people only do to you what you allow them to, implying that Martin is somehow weak for not standing up for himself. Terry Bradshaw talked about how our culture has become too quick to judge. And then there was Jay Glazer's exclusive interview of Incognito, who admitted to sending insensitive messages, but denied being a bully or racist (link to ESPN's summary of the interview):
"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.'

"Now, do I think Jonathan Martin was going to murder my family? Not one bit. He texted me that. I didn't think he was going to kill my 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."
"You can ask anybody in the Miami Dolphins' locker room who had Jon Martin's back the absolute most, and they will undoubtedly tell you [it was me]," Incognito said. "Jon never showed signs that football was getting to him [or] the locker room was getting to him."
"All this stuff coming out, it speaks to the culture of our locker room, our closeness, our brotherhood," Incognito said. "And the racism, the bad words, that's what I regret most. But that's a product of the environment."
Now imagine a high school girl accused of bullying saying the same thing: "But I was her best friend! She said mean things to me, too! In the high school environment, that's just how we talk!" Not much of a defense, is it? Incognito is certainly right that the culture of the team played a role; he just clearly does not think that there's anything wrong with the culture. What the ESPN story does not include though, is the most important fact to come out of that interview: The one question that Incognito would not answer is whether his coaches had directed him to toughen Martin up.

The wisest thing any player has said about the situation has come from Brandon Marshall, a wide receiver who has experienced plenty of his own troubles, but who seems to have turned his life around after being treated for borderline personality disorder and courageously discussing his diagnosis in public.
"Look at it from this standpoint," Marshall said. "Take a little boy and a little girl. A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is 'Get up, shake it off. You’ll be OK. Don't cry.' A little girl falls down, what do we say? 'It’s going to be OK.' We validate their feelings. So right there from that moment, we're teaching our men to mask their feelings, to not show their emotions. And it’s that times 100 with football players. You can't show that you're hurt, can't show any pain. So for a guy to come into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, that's a problem.

"That’s what I mean by the culture of the NFL. And that's what we have to change. So what's going on in Miami goes on in every locker room. But it’s time for us to start talking. Maybe have some group sessions where guys sit down and maybe talk about what's going on off the field or what's going on in the building and not mask everything. Because the (longer) it goes untreated, the worse it gets."
A T-group for NFL players, what an inspired idea! Marshall also addresses the role the head coach plays in shaping a team's culture:
“We [the Chicago Bears] look at rookies different,” he said. “You have to earn your stripes, earn your place on the team, earn your place in the NFL. But as far as crossing that line? Disrespecting guys? Demeaning guys? That just doesn’t happen here. Actually, Coach (Marc) Trestman did a great job of really going out of his way to make everyone feel comfortable from Day One.”
Will the NFL take advantage of this opportunity to change how coaches manage locker room behavior? Or will there be another flimsy attempt at a cover-up?