How do you bully a 6-foot-5-inch, 312-pound man?
We presumably will have an answer to that question once the National Football League investigates the matter of Jonathan Martin, who left the Miami Dolphins last week amid claims that he was being harassed by his own teammates. (At this early stage, we’ll give the NFL the benefit of the doubt and assume it will conduct a real investigation.)
Details are scarce, but this could turn into a very big story -- as big, in its way, as the National Basketball Association's Jason Collins coming out of the closet. And like the Collins story, Martin's case could upend some entrenched stereotypes. It turns out that gay men can play professional basketball, and a mound of muscle known as Moose who crashes into NFL linemen for a living could be the victim of bullying.
Last night, the Dolphins suspended the player who appears to have been the main culprit -- Martin’s fellow offensive lineman, Richie Incognito, who sent “threatening and racially charged texts” to Martin, according to Fox Sports. (Martin is biracial; Incognito is white.)
The Miami Herald has reported that Incognito made Martin shell out $15,000 to underwrite a junket to Las Vegas that Martin wasn’t included in. But the event that convinced Martin to walk away from the team was almost too junior-high-school in its stupid cruelty to be believed: A group of players invited Martin to join them at their lunch table in the cafeteria, and then got up and left the moment he sat down.
Some enlightened experts on NFL mores have blamed Martin, suggesting that he must have snapped. “You pull pranks nonstop in the locker room,” said Joe Rose, a former Dolphins tight end who’s now a local radio host. “You know they’re going to do stuff to you, you give it back. It’s part of camaraderie, part of being with your group.”
This line of argument presumes that Martin arrived in the NFL without ever having played on a team or experienced football culture in college or high school. In fact, at Stanford University, Martin was charged with protecting the blind side of the team’s most precious asset, quarterback Andrew Luck. He managed football culture well enough to be drafted in 2012 by the Dolphins in the second round. (He picked up a degree in classics along the way.)
But maybe we’re really talking about a different sort of culture here. Martin comes from a distinguished line of black professionals and high achievers -- three generations of whom attended Harvard University. His great-grandfather on his mother’s side was one of about a dozen blacks in Harvard’s Class of 1924. (W.E.B. DuBois was there at the same time; neither was allowed to live in campus dorms.)
Harvard men deemed themselves superior to other whites. Imagine what it must have been like to be black there in the 1920s. It probably wasn’t much better by the time Martin’s grandfather arrived in Cambridge in the early 1950s.
Yet Martin’s great-grandfather and grandfather both flourished; the former became a lawyer, the latter a professor specializing in the development of African nations. Apparently it was more bearable to be black at Harvard in the pre-civil rights era than to be a pedigreed Stanford grad with the Miami Dolphins in 2013.
As for Incognito, he’s a class act all the way. His college career ended when he withdrew from the University of Nebraska after being suspended for “disciplinary problems”; he was charged with three counts of assault. He transferred to the University of Oregon on condition that he complete an anger-management course and adhere to a strict code of conduct, which he managed to violate before suiting up for a single practice. Incognito made it to the NFL anyway. Last year, his fellow players voted him the league’s second-dirtiest player in a poll conducted by the Sporting News.
Troy Stradford, a former Dolphin who now does game broadcasts, said it would be hard for Martin to return to the team because his fellow players will read his departure as “a sign of weakness.”
You don’t make it to the NFL if you’re not mentally and physically tough. And when you have committed your life to football, as Martin has, you almost certainly don’t walk away from a promising career with the Miami Dolphins unless you are being put through something truly hellish.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)