By now everybody has heard the story: NFL player Jonathan Martin, a 24 year old 6’5” lineman stormed away from the Dolphins because he was bullied by teammates. He briefly checked into a hospital due to stress and has still not returned to the team.
Actually, what happened sounds more like extortion than bullying. Team veterans pressured Martin to pay $15,000 for a Vegas trip he did not even attend. In fact, it sounds like a hate crime into the bargain–a racial attack left on his voicemail by Richie Incognito.
It’s shocking to see an NFL lineman from Stanford just walk away from his NFL career. Martin had had no problem fitting in until he joined the Dolphins. His former teammate, current NFL star quarterback Andrew Luck, says that he “ loves” Martin.
There are Dolphin players and other NFL players who want to blame the victim. Antrel Rolle says that Martin is equally guilty because he allowed it to happen. Former Dolphin teammate, Lydon Murtha says that Martin never wanted to be part of the group and couldn’t look his teammates in the eye. He points out that it is normal for rookies to pay large sums for extravagant events as part of a culture of initiation. Current teammate Brian Hartline says he saw Martin initially laughing at the voicemail. Who knows what exactly happened, but blaming Martin is not the answer.
The general manager of the Dolphins, Jeff Ireland certainly never had the answer. Ireland allegedly instructed Incognito to “toughen” Martin up a little. Before Martin left the team, Martin’s agent complained to Ireland. The agent says that the GM advised him to tell Martin to “punch” Incognito. Kids in the first grade are told to be more mature than that!
There is no winner in this story. It’s destructive for all the players and for the NFL. The best comment about this is by former player Ryan Riddle, who says that when he played for the Jets he was “the quiet weirdo”. He makes the point that while quiet Martin was out of place in this NFL environment, at a law firm, Martin would probably be in the in-crowd and Incognito would be the one ridiculed and out of place.
Whether we label this travesty as bullying or as a hate crime, the NFL can try to do something positive with it by publicizing an anti-bullying campaign. Bullying is prevalent in our society. It happens on the playground and it happens in the workplace. Up to 85% of kids with special needs get bullied! When the targets of bullying find out that even a 6’5” Stanford Giant can be bullied, they may feel less shame.
I was part of an anti-bullying campaign at Community GatePath, a non-profit serving children with special needs that created AbilityPath.org. If you want to feel the impact of bullying, watch this video where Lauren Potter, an actress on Glee who has Down Syndrome, tells us how bullies forced her to eat sand. It is heart breaking to watch, and the courage she shows in this interview is so inspiring.
Martin deserves to get an apology, to recover fully from the trauma, and to get his career back. Once this happens, I hope that the NFL and all its professional athletes can come together and use their bully pulpit to talk about what happened to Martin, and about bullying in general, in order to help children like Lauren Potter –children with special needs. That’s the only happy ending I can see from this mess.