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Does sports culture need to change to stop bullying?

BY DI STAFF | NOVEMBER 15, 2013 5:00 AM

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Two weeks ago, Jonathan Martin, a starting offensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins, left the team amid allegations that he had been bullied by a veteran player. The incident has sparked a widespread discussion on the culture of sports locker rooms.

Individuals, not culture to blame

As far as we can tell, the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal is mostly an isolated case. While we know hazing is the norm in NFL locker rooms, and most sports in general, bullying has not been reported at a level that would suggest a serious change is required in the entire league’s culture. Advocating such a sweeping change at this stage is not very different from advocating for firearms for all teachers. It is an overreaction, and in this case, a futile one.

There is this, however: Just because something doesn’t get reported doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

It is important to concede that the vast majority of us have no idea what it is like to be part of an NFL locker-room environment. From what I’ve read and observed, the two words that come up the most are “family” and “military.” There is an aspect of extreme closeness and camaraderie that outsiders like me — and presumably you — don’t fully understand. It says something that retired players in sports note the feeling of belonging to an exclusive family as one of the things they miss the most.

That is awesome and potentially problematic. We were all surprised when many Miami Dolphins players sided with Richie Incognito instead of Jonathan Martin, to the point where it seemed as if Martin was an NFL incarnation of Fredo Corleone. There was a very real sense of betrayal, and it makes one wonder if bullying is actually much more common than we realize in professional sports.

I don’t think change is bad. I just think it’s not possible to the extent many people are calling for. The NFL locker-room environment is a very particular one, honed from generations of players spending months (and in the long-term, years) with each other, playing a violent and aggressive sport.

Bullying is concerning, and it should not be brushed off like some people (I’m looking at you online commenters on various sports websites) think it should be.

But bullying must be harnessed within the contexts of the existing — and very necessary — environment. Yes, organizations must do a better job of monitoring the very thin line between hazing and bullying, as well as making it known that certain things will not be tolerated. Yes, players (especially older ones) have an obligation to follow that code of ethics as well. But it must any changes should not come at the expense of the culture of football or sports more broadly.

Barrett Sonn

Football culture punishes “weakness”

No one really thinks of bullying as a threat to the mind and soul — two separate entities from the physical self. When the topic of bullying surfaces, the line of thinking more often than not relies heavily on the physicality of the situation, the size of the aggressor, and the age of the target.

Oftentimes, this determines whether or not an accusation of bullying is valid. But this is where the falsity lies. Bullying has everything to do with power.

It’s disturbing some people think Jonathan Martin is a wuss who needs to “man up” because he left his team after allegedly being bullied. These statements are degrading because they completely disregard the psychological effects of bullying and in turn, dehumanize Martin’s character. To say someone should grow tougher skin or simply “suck it up” is ludicrous. While I do think self-advocacy is important, a target of bullying can only do so much before support is needed.

But the culture of the NFL seems to have prevented Martin from seeking that support. Martin may not have felt comfortable reaching out to trusted officials or even his other teammates out of fear he would be rejected. Doing so could have rid himself of any credibility and authority as a male.

In the broader culture, but particularly in sports, the male is supposed to hide his emotions and adhere to the common culture regardless of his innermost feelings. While I disagree, this is understood among supporters of traditional gender roles and competitive norms.

It’s OK to ask for help. This notion must be adopted in the NFL. The locker-room culture is set up in such a way that defying the older players and team’s culture may cause a rookie to be a social outcast. The newcomer is expected to prove himself capable and worthy of having a spot on the team. He has to “earn” it, something that can cause tremendous stress on top of the other responsibilities as a professional athlete.

Bullying and hazing in the NFL has been around for years. Players and the administration have looked the other way, as if to condone this rite of passage. Only this time around has it received national attention. While the locker-room culture may be out of good spirit, for a target of bullying, it is extremely destructive to player’s well-being and must be changed.

Ashley Lee


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