Football is a sport for tough men. Everyone knows that. So when Miami Dolphins left tackle Jonathan Martin left the team two weeks ago to seek help for emotional issues, was he not being tough?
After Martin’s exit, rumors circulated that teammate Richie Incognito had been bullying him. Once the voicemails Incognito left for the second-year player surfaced, the speculation was verified. The messages on Martin’s phone were volatile. In one, Incognito barked racial epithets and death threats into the phone. In light of the incident, Martin has made it clear that he is unlikely to return to the Dolphins.
In the week following Martin’s departure, players from the league derided him for being soft. Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter spoke with a handful of players who agreed he was a “coward.” Others said that he was “standoffish and shy,” somehow making Incognito’s aggression toward him acceptable.
Incognito is quickly becoming the antihero of football. Last year, the veteran left guard was investigated for allegedly molesting a volunteer at a team-sponsored event with a golf club. Earlier in his career, he was kicked off the team at the University of Nebraska, and later, cut by the St. Louis Rams for repeated run-ins with teammates and coaches. With his recent, very publicized hostility toward Martin, he has solidified his status as the NFL antagonist in residence. His locker room aggression, unfortunately, is symbolic of a larger problem within the sport.
The NFL, with its renewed focus on curbing instances of concussions, should divert some attention to the mental condition of the brain that they work so hard and pay so much money to protect. Concussions are severe, but so are the mental difficulties that afflict the same organ. If the NFL doesn’t want to endure the negative publicity from a repeat incident, it must first recognize that protecting its players means protecting their emotional health, too.
Martin’s teammates stood idly by as he was bullied, amplifying the severity of the situation. Admittedly, Martin may not have made his distress apparent, or perhaps he instigated Incognito’s comments — much is still unknown. But it shouldn’t have been necessary for Martin to vocalize his unhappiness for Incognito to realize that his racial slurs and malicious attacks were unacceptable on or off the field.
Although Incognito has been suspended indefinitely, his presence continues to loom large in Miami and raises serious questions for the famously vigilant NFL. Is bullying the norm in NFL locker rooms? Can it be stopped?
Football is a sport for tough men. But it mustn’t become a sport for callous men. Bullying has no place in football, even though the warrior culture that inculcates the sport encourages hostility. Incognito’s suspension is a step in the right direction, and it serves as a clear reminder to both the Dolphins and the NFL that bullying is a problem that needs to be addressed. If football is to endure, the NFL must work to improve the demeanor and culture that surround it.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Nov. 20 print edition. Omar Etman is a staff columnist. Email him at [email protected]