Jennifer M. Rodriguez - Family and Relationship Coach
Positively Jen

NFL Players Behaving Badly: The Martin/Incognito Bullying Situation

So here are the facts as I understand them.  I'm sure more facts will come out as the situation unfolds, but I'm going to evaluate the situation based on these four facts:
1) Jonathan Martin walked out on NFL's Miami Dolphins because Richie Incognito bullied him.
2) Richie Incognito was suspended from the Miami Dolphins to allow for a full investigation.
3) Richie Incognito sent abusive, threatening and racist messages to Jonathan Martin last spring.
4) Miami Dolphin leadership encouraged Richie Incognito to "toughen up" Jonathan Martin.
First, Incognito was DEFINITELY out of line with the messages he sent Martin last April, and there is no excuse for using that kind of language.  But why did it take over six months for that behavior to be reported?  That has a lot to do with the shame and embarrassment that Martin most likely felt.  Martin was beginning his second season in the NFL, and it should have been a time to celebrate and rejoice in his ability as a football player and as a valued member of an NFL team...instead, he was taunted, ridiculed, and teased.  Like any victim of abuse, those behaviors begin to wear down a person's self-esteem and self-confidence--even big, tough NFL players.  This is the same thing as the child abuse victim feeling like he is bad and deserves to be punished for everything, or the battered wife who feels like she deserves to be punched in the face because she burned dinner.  These are not rational thoughts based on logic, they are emotional reactions based on fear and repeated patterns of abusive behavior. 
From what I know about bullying, there MUST have been a social culture in the Miami Dolphin's locker room that allowed for inappropriate and abusive behavior to thrive.  In the world of bullying there are a few bullies, a few victims and many bystanders or witnesses.  If these bystanders do nothing when they see the abuse happening it is essentially the same thing as condoning the abusive behavior.  On the other hand, it only takes one or two "upstanders" to speak up and say something that would rally the rest of the bystanders to flip that peer pressure around and make it uncomfortable for the few bullies to continue their abuse.  If one of the other players had said something like, "Hey, knock it off, we got work to do," or "Martin, don't listen to that guy, keep doing what you are doing," and a few other bystanders nodded in agreement, the situation could have been minimized.  Perhaps not eliminated, because the only thing that can stop a bully from being abusive is for the bully to change his own behavior; but made the social culture a little more tolerable for the targeted victims.  On the other hand, when nothing is said, that victim begins to feel isolated from the team, and that the rest of the team agrees with the abuser.  This leads to a psychological downward spiral that can have physiological effects related to stress and even suicidal ideations.  This stress can be strong enough to make strong and successful NFL players abandon their dreams and return home.  It is also something that others are not always able to understand until they have experienced it.
If the coaches were unaware of the social culture in the locker room, then it may have appeared that Martin was weak and struggling.  Their request to "toughen up" Martin, though poorly worded and in dire need of clarification, may have been appropriate.  However, without understanding the social dynamics in the locker room when coaching staff is not there to witness it, that request to the primary bully only adds fuel to the fire by validating the abuse in the bully's mind.  This is common on the school yard as well.  Teachers, parents and administrators are frequently the LAST people to know about bullying because the bully tries to hide their inappropriate behavior to avoid consequences, the victim tries to hide the abuse because of shame, and the bystanders try to hide their observations so that they do not become the next target.
So before people begin judging the victim, the bully, or the leadership; it is important to understand that team environments are made up of complex social dynamics, and pointing the finger of blame does nothing to solve the problem.  The solution to this and ALL bullying situations is to properly empower and equip social leaders with strategies to encourage and motivate peers without breaking their self-confidence.  This requires the social leaders of the team to be outspoken when they see something inappropriate, and to report abusive behaviors to management so that it can be properly addressed (i.e. rules, policies, and sanctions when appropriate).  Only then will we begin to see a decline in abusive and bullying behaviors.

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