Richie Incognito, Jonathan Martin

“Richie Incognito is a piece of shit bully.”

“Jonathan Martin is just a pussy that can’t take a joke.”

These are the two primary prevailing arguments in a scandal that has many questioning the NFL’s locker room culture and that of adult bullying. ‘Bullygate’ has divided the Miami Dolphins locker room and pundits alike and left the rest of us wondering what actually transpired. Twitter can’t seem to make its mind up, armchair jurists in front of their televisions and computers can’t put their finger on it, and players around the NFL certainly aren’t united on the issue either.

One thing is certain, though: a player has been mistreated by his peers.

For those of you that haven’t been paying attention to the drama in South Beach – yes, drama that doesn’t involve LeBron James for once – here are the details. On October 28th, Dolphins second-year offensive tackle Jonathan Martin left the team, citing mistreatment by teammates. Initial speculation pointed to an isolated incident stemming from a supposed “joke gone wrong” situation, however, it was later revealed that Martin checked himself into the hospital with emotional distress as a result of constant bullying at the hands of a group of teammates.

Shortly after, Richie Incognito, a player with a decade-long rap sheet as a thug and dirty player, was identified as the chief antagonist. Martin claims that Incognito had been harassing him at great length in person, on social media, and over the phone to the extent that Martin felt the need to leave.

Reaction from the Dolphins locker room is mixed in regards to if Martin will be welcomed back. Tackle Bryant McKinnie feels that Martin should have kept the issue in-house.

Incognito also has a lot of support in the locker room.

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill says he believed Incognito and Martin to be not only friends, but best friends and that he never saw Incognito behave in a way that can be construed as harassment – an unsurprising comment from a guy that relies on Incognito to protect him from the NFL’s fiercest pass rushers.

Defensive tackle Randy Starks feels that Incognito is getting a bad rap and no one in the locker room seems to think he’s capable of such deplorable behavior.

Miami Dolphins v Buffalo Bills

Allegations of racism by Incognito (due to his use of the n-word towards Martin in a voicemail) have been dismissed by several Dolphins players, many of which who consider Incognito to be an ‘honorary black man.’ Martin, who is also half white is not considered ‘black’ by his teammates, meaning that Incognito is more accepted than Martin by the black players. However, I’m not here to discuss the implications of race and society in pro sports, so we’ll leave that one for another time.

Martin, his family, and lawyer believe Martin is a victim and has endured abuse much more severe than what has been publicly reported thus far. Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall defended Martin and went so far as to say that locker room culture in the NFL needs reform.

Victims should be supported through difficult times, not lambasted by fans and players alike.

“Jonathan Martin is soft” is an opinion I’ve seen circulating the Twittersphere. “If Martin can’t take the heat, he should have got out of the kitchen” is another.

Now, I won’t sit here and tell you that professional football is sparkles and cupcakes. No, it’s a smash mouth and brutal sport that often demands brawn over intelligence and its participants come from all walks of life. Some come from the ghetto, some come from the country, and if you’re Jonathan Martin, you come from affluence.

Nine of Martin’s family members, including both of his parents, graduated from Harvard. His father is a professor and his mother is a corporate attorney for Toyota. Martin went to Stanford and was a second-round draft pick.

An NFL locker room, by and large, is in stark contrast from what Martin was likely used to at Stanford. Not everyone is nice. Players can be standoffish, aggressive, or as former Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder characterized it, alpha males. Richie Incognito is an alpha male and he picked on a ‘weaker’ male in Jonathan Martin.

So does that make it okay? No, it doesn’t. Should Jonathan Martin have ‘sucked it up’ or taken the advice of his own general manager, Jeff Ireland, and punched Incognito? No, he shouldn’t have.

The reason why many following this story are dismissive of Martin as a victim is because this is an issue between two men that are over 300 pounds. Bullying, as a widely accepted belief, only occurs within kids in high school or younger.

This is an extremely shortsighted and ignorant belief. Bullying can occur anywhere and involve people of all age, size, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, et al.

Jonathan Martin

It is no one – NO ONE’S – place to judge how Jonathan Martin felt about the way he was treated. Bullying takes a heavy toll on a person’s self esteem and emotional well-being in ways that those who have not experienced it simply won’t understand.

I say this because I know. I was bullied in high school for my ethnicity and it led to depression that lasted several years. People told me to fight back, to stand up for myself, to get back at the other kids. It’s just not that easy – especially when you don’t know how and feel alone. Brandon Marshall described it from a psychological point of view:

“Take a little boy and a little girl. A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is ‘Get up, shake it off. You’ll be OK. Don’t cry.’ A little girl falls down, what do we say? ‘It’s going to be OK.’ We validate their feelings. So right there from that moment, we’re teaching our men to mask their feelings, to not show their emotions. And it’s that times 100 with football players. You can’t show that you’re hurt, can’t show any pain. So for a guy to come into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, that’s a problem.”

As such, the notion that just because you’re an adult – a professional athlete, and a big one at that – doesn’t change anything, either. It doesn’t mean that you are somehow impervious to abuse, that you can just brush it off like it’s nothing. Being 6’5″ and 320 pounds is meaningless when you have low self esteem. Think about it, how many overweight people are teased and harassed because of their weight by a much smaller aggressor, yet do nothing about it? A lot. Especially if they want to be accepted by the bully.

That’s just it, though, victims very commonly long to be accepted or befriend their abusers. I know I did, and Jonathan Martin did as well.

Tannehill and others say they thought Martin and Incognito were the best of pals, that Martin was always laughing and took the teasing in stride. Well, that’s exactly what you do when you’re trying to be accepted by others. You don’t show that it bothers you. You don’t snap. You play it off like everything is cool in an attempt to appease the bully and be invited into the circle.

Richie Incognito, Jonathan Martin

One quality that makes bullying have such a deep effect on a person’s state of mind is that it occurs in places that you can’t simply remove yourself from. Whether it’s at school or the workplace, people can’t simply just up and leave. Well, they can, but they don’t in fear of being teased even more, and it all too often can be manifested in self harm. Martin finally chose to leave the team, leading to the public spectacle that we see today.

Bryant McKinnie said this is something Martin should’ve kept in-house. Martin may have felt he had no other options, considering his general manager basically told him to confront Incognito with violence. There were other channels Martin could have used and it’s still not fully clear exactly what steps Martin took before he left the team. It’s also unknown if Martin confronted Incognito peacefully and asked him to stop. But one thing is true: he didn’t feel safe or comfortable.

Martin’s safety and health are the most important factors in this situation. It’s times like these that we place our own interests and “the game” over humanity.

Jonathan Martin does not deserve your judgement of his life. You have no right to tell him how he should have acted or what he should be feeling. He is a human being and he feels victimized. Until we have a more complete picture of the events, all we can do is wait and watch. In the meantime, let’s try and have more compassion for our fellow humans and be more understanding of one another.

Simple as that.