In elementary school, I was the kid who was forced to stand against the wall in a severe version of parochial school dodge ball, while balls hummed toward my face and groin. I was also the kid who got excluded or called names or even threatened at times. Throughout all of it, I held a wish for someone to bear witness to what was happening. I wanted someone to see it, acknowledge it was wrong, and then hold the bullies accountable for their actions. There is great power in public shame, and I thought that if my pursuers could be called out and held accountable, then all would be okay. Even if this didn’t happen, the fantasy was enough to sustain me through my difficult grade school years.
Although that was my wish, I never helped make it happen. I never sought out anyone to see what was going on. I don’t know what my thought process was as a 9-year-old, but I’m sure the stigma against snitching had something to do with it. Even at that young age, I’m sure I was fed the notion that boys who seek out help can’t fight their own battles. So, I kept quiet, and had balls hurled at me or got my head slammed into a locker.
This is what’s so infuriating for me as a father about the NFL conduct case between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. Incognito and Martin were teammates on the Miami Dolphins until Martin left the team, citing that Incognito harassed him with racial slurs and threats of violence.
The Dolphins eventually suspended Incognito for conduct detrimental to the team, but only after a media backlash against Martin for voicing his concern in the first place. Some NFL players have belittled Martin, saying that hazing is common in the NFL and that Martin just couldn’t handle himself. Former NFL members and sports commentators have made similar statements, citing an NFL “culture” that inducts rookies with hazing, intent on toughening up the weaker players and building bonds between teammates.
I think the backlash really hit me during the “Barbershop” segment on Michel Martin’s NPR show “Tell Me More”. This segment features a group of predominantly African-American men who comment on social and political news. One commentator, Jimi Izrael, stated that Martins should have “manned up” and beaten up Incognito instead of “running to the principal’s office”. He insisted you “cannot bully a grown man”, suggesting the term was misapplied to this case. Dissenting voices were featured in the segment regarding NFL management’s role, wondering whether they prompted the hazing. However, at no point during the rest of the Barbershop segment, was the statement that Martin should have manned-up addressed head on.
I should note that I heard most of this news coverage on the radio, and did not know Richie Incognito’s race. Throughout most of the coverage, I had assumed that Incognito was African American. In spite of Incognito’s racial slurs against Martin, I had not heard any outrage about the racism inherent in his harassment. Therefore, I assumed it was the case of one Black player harassing another, and so when I learned that not only was Incognito being excused for his bullying, but also for his racist slurs, I was dumbfounded.
I see this as a failure of witness. Those who have been treated terribly by others understand the need for someone to recognize what’s going on and to help us speak up against it. Perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a victim is for others to see what’s happening and blame the victim and/or support the behaviors of the aggressor. It took guts for Martin to give voice to what was happening with his teammate, but he was met with ridicule. Although the NFL suspended Incognito, the social backlash against Martin did far more damage to his career than to Incognito’s. Not only did he leave the dolphins, but was cursed with the stigma of being a snitch and cry-baby, alienating him among both teammates and fans.
There are many who say that the NFL honors toughness in its players, and therefore anyone earning himself a 6- to 7-figure salary for playing should shut up and take it. But football is a sport that’s viewed by kids who look up to its players. Behaviors of NFL players trickle down to American kids who glorify and adopt the mannerisms of their idols. This conduct in the NFL teaches kids that if they want to play like the big kids, they have to shut up and take it. They have to put their faith in other boys who might terrorize and bully them, because it’s all a part of playing the game. If the NFL is to continue being a hallmark of American culture, then it needs to reflect on the social modeling it provides to kids.
Some commentators have stated that this case is simply a product of NFL “culture”, stating that hazing of rookie players is a means to toughening up players and acculturating them to life in the NFL. The sentiment suggests that players’ behaviors are therefore beyond reproach because they’re couched within a specific (sub)culture. This rationale is weak. Would we apply this argument to other institutions or groups within the United States? Would we say that American business prides men’s work over and above women’s and, therefore, women should make less money than men because of the “culture” of corporate America? Would we say that it’s part of urban life for Latino men to kill other Latino men in gang warfare and, therefore, it should be dismissed as “cultural”? When injustice is done to others, we as a society need to bear witness and insist upon equity and safety.
As my son goes off into the world, I cannot be at his side 24/7. If I could, I would be able to help safeguard him and lead him toward sticking up for himself and seeking help when needed. Because I can’t be with him, it’s up to me as a parent to teach him to identify when injustice is happening and what he can do about it, whether sticking up for himself or seeking out help. I entrust other adults to do the same, and to protect the rights of those who seek them out for help. But in spite of what his dad says, if my son sees that others, even adults, get punished for seeking out help in situations that seem insurmountable, what’s the likelihood of him getting the help he needs?