When news of the bullying scandal between Jonathan Martin ‘12 and Miami Dolphins teammate Richie Incognito was first released to the public, I must admit that my initial reaction was to face the issue with a healthy dose of skepticism. While I certainly didn’t see any reason why Martin would fake any allegations of bullying, the initial wave of Dolphins teammates siding with Incognito, coupled with the rumors that Martin’s job at left tackle wasn’t exactly safe, made me wary of the allegations, to say the least.
My suspicions seemed to be confirmed a few weeks ago when the transcript of the text message conversations between Martin and Incognito was released to the public. After reading the interactions between the two players and seeing Incognito seem genuinely worried about Martin’s situation towards the end of the transcript, I walked away with the sense that Incognito, a normal NFL player, had been manipulated and targeted by some sinister plan from Martin.
Boy, was I wrong.
Further news later revealed that Incognito had been verbally abusing and putting down Martin with other teammates behind the scenes, and that Martin had been telling his parents about his severe emotional distress and his inability to cope with the duress that he had been forced to endure. I found myself eating my words and regretting that I had ever mistrusted Martin’s word.
After the official NFL report argued that Incognito and other members of the Dolphins had harassed Martin to the point of nearly breaking, I realized that the locker-room culture of the NFL has some incredibly serious issues that need to be patched up if it presented an environment so hostile that a 6-foot-5, 312-pound second-round NFL Draft pick had found himself unable to continue.
Martin must have presented an easy target for Incognito and company as the more distant, thoughtful rookie from the supposedly “soft” Stanford University in a social hierarchy based predominantly on toughness — both mental and physical — first and foremost.
Keep in mind that this is a sport in which players have been offered cash bounties in the past for injuring opponents. This is a sport in which the plays to be celebrated are the bone-crushing hits that leave opposing backs dazed, confused and slow to rise from the field. As a matter of fact, one of the nationally recognized consensus top plays of 2013 was South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney’s monster hit on Michigan’s Vincent Smith, in which the latter was brutally clotheslined by all 274 pounds of a future NFL star in a way that sent his helmet flying 10 yards away.
In the testosterone-dominated, toughness-oriented environment that constitutes the modern NFL locker room, players are expected to adhere to the expectations of toughness both in and out of the facility. They are thrust into a lifestyle of fraternity, emotional imperviousness, money, drugs and objectifying women in which weakness is not only intolerable, but also reason to be alienated and belittled by colleagues. In other words, it almost forces players to take on a certain persona and really live it or be ostracized. For some, it certainly comes more easily than others. For Jon Martin, it was clearly very difficult to adjust.
You really can’t blame Martin in this scenario. It is clear from his texts to his parents that he was simply unable to personify the tough, steely football player that he was expected to be by his colleagues. But the way in which his deviation from the norm was not accepted, but instead completely blown up and made a point of contention, was absolutely unacceptable. It disgusts me just to think about it.
More than anything, it really worries me about the future of the NFL locker room in a society today that is experiencing a rapid shift in societal norms and acceptance of the differences amongst people.
I’m worried for Michael Sam, who will, in all likeliness, become the first openly gay man to play in the NFL. I’m worried for the scores of others like Jon Martin who could be hiding severe emotional distress and dissatisfaction as per the unforgiving yet strictly upheld “standard” in the locker rooms around the nation.
While Sam was easily accepted by teammates, coaches and other student-athletes alike at the University of Missouri, I think that it is an unfortunate truth that he will face some severe issues in locker rooms throughout his professional career. Although society as a whole is gravitating towards increasing LGBT-acceptance with the maturing of the new generation of students, the bubble of the NFL’s culture, I feel, will be much tougher to pop.
Just look at Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma’s response to the news, in which he expressed concern at the notion of being naked next to a gay man. Look at the situation that has been brewing in the Vikings’ association due to ex-punter Chris Kluwe’s open support of the LGBT community. And look at the Jon Martin case, which showed that deviations from the norm in the locker room are grounds for active aggression and cold treatment.
I fully expect Michael Sam to be drafted, and I fully expect there to be unequivocal supporters for his cause — myself included. But while I’d love to think that the NFL will be accepting and ignore the “gay” label, we all know it’s not going to be that easy.
Unfortunately, I think the label of being gay will define Michael Sam’s NFL experience more than anything else. Even if he goes on to win 15 Super Bowls, 10 MVP titles and put up a SportsCenter Top-10-worthy play every week, he’ll always be known, first and foremost, as the first openly gay NFL player. That will be the first thing his teammates will think about when they meet him. Although some will accept it or ignore it, others of more conservative backgrounds will undoubtedly see it as an issue. And while some will be able to deal with the issue without making a fuss out of it, others will not.
While I don’t think that the NFL has proven itself ready for Michael Sam, the movement towards acceptance needed to start somewhere. Jackie Robinson faced innumerable challenges when he started a movement. Michael Sam will need to do the same, and I have the utmost respect and admiration for him as he moves forward, symbolizing a new beginning for the NFL. It certainly won’t be easy and the NFL might not be entirely ready, but I think the time is right for Sam to make a push. Good luck, Michael Sam.
Do-Hyoung Park would have suffered a fate far worse than a field-storming trampling had an oncoming Jadeveon Clowney mauled him. Give him some juking tips or plastic surgeon referrals at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Tweet at him @dohyoungpark.