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Friday, November 8, 2013

Bullying, Harassment and the NFL

The list of NFL players who have ran afoul of the law and have been welcomed back with open arms after serving a punitive measure is a long one.   Reckless gun play, potential involvement in a homicide, assault, sexual assault, car accidents, the list goes on.  Heck a good portion of the Cincinnati Bengals fits the criteria.   Even "Fathers of the Year" like Travis Henry, he of the double figures in children and close to double figures in mothers found gainful employment.   I will use the most extreme example as a baseline.   Michael Vick tortured dogs as part of an elaborate and in-depth dog- fighting ring.  Sure Vick lost a lot of money, and had to sit out a couple of years while in prison.  Yet now he draws a pay cheque and all mostly has been forgiven for the scrambling QB. 

This brings us to the curious case of Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, both offensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins and ostensibly friends from all accounts.    The story has been been fodder for a mainstream and sports media in need for a story that does not detail the exploits of an overweight crack smoking mayor who shall remain nameless.  

Martin left the Dolphins over a week ago over allegations of harassment and bullying from Incognito, and other members of the Dolphins who sought to exclude Martin.  Martin, an intellectual sort, has parents who are both university professors while he himself went to Stanford.  Voice mails and texts from Ingcognito indicate a racial slant and a threatening tone towards Martin and the matter of a $15 000 bill that Martin had to unwillingly foot for a trip to Las Vegas.   All pretty damning stuff, and what was not helped was Incognito's checkered past.   Yet in the past week when the cone of silence around the Dolphins was lifted, something strange happened.  Incognito was widely praised as a great guy and Martin's best friend, while Martin was , if you read between the lines, panned and somewhat ostracized.   The man they called "Big Weirdo" may have trouble finding gainful NFL employment because he chose to lift the lid on locker room shenanigans. 

Does that make any sense to you?  The victim is being isolated and blamed, while the guy responsible is being praised, and by default likely very welcome back in the Dolphins locker room.   QB Ryan Tannehill and  WR Brian Hartline were the most vocal in defining the relationship between the two and being somewhat perturbed by the media attention of the story.   

So NFL culture permits their athletes to run afoul of the law in many different and exciting ways, and allows them to return to the game they loved after taking a banned substance.  Yet someone who left the team as a result of not being able to take bullying and harassment is castigated and is said to be not ready for an NFL locker room, and all that comes with it.  Bizarre is but one way to describe it.   Sadly, all to familiar is the other way.   

I have detailed in my law classes the fact that the victim in many sexual assault cases rarely gets a fair shake, In high profile cases like rape in Steubenville, Ohio, Kansas, here in Nova Scotia and at Amherst College, the victim was ostracized, blamed, and threatened.    Certainly sounds like that is the way things are headed for Jonathan Martin.   

Harassment, and bullying by definition is repeated attempts by the perpetrator to make the person feel uncomfortable.  They do not condone the treatment they are receiving, and they give no consent.   Nowhere in the definition is relationship between the two clarified.  So it does not matter if they are mortal enemies, husband and wife, best friends, teammates. That really has no bearing on how someone else should be treated.   If someone is being treated in a manner that they neither condone, nor consent to, it is an issue.  

Looking at the Canadian Human Rights Code, it is a classic example of harassment, bullying and discrimination.  To the Miami Dolphins, they are testosterone fueled hi jinks.  A boys will be boys, towel snapping sort of event.   Measures in Canada for this sort of thing range from a simple apology, to a monetary sum awarded, and discrimination training and programs put in place.  Rarely is it punitive, and it serves to return the victim, or complainant to where they were before.  I am not sure that is the appropriate solution in a unique workplace such as an NFL locker room, but surely trumps the treatment the parties involved have been receiving during this ordeal. 

Martin, it should be noted, has not been heard from since the incident.  He is laying low at his parents house.  The suspended Incognito posted a couple of insignificant tweets and one comment which said nothing all.  Everyone else is doing the speaking for the two of them.   The scorecard indicates a surprising level of sympathy for Incognito from the players and little support for Martin except for some columns in the media, like the one that Jason Whitlock wrote for ESPN.   You can find it HERE 

Hazing, and initiation are part of the package of professional sport.  It is said to help welcome or accept a player and is supposedly good for team unity and team bonding.  Here I thought that wearing the same uniform and working towards the same common goal of a championship was all the team unity that was needed.  Naive of me I suppose.  

The NFL has started to address the physical toll its game takes on the players, but does precious little in terms of dealing with the mental health issues in their league.  Players, though behemoths in size, and immensely talented athletes are still human beings with real live emotional issues.    

They aim to give second chances to players who take illegal substances, and run afoul of the law, but then tacitly isolate a player who had the guts to stand up to his harasser and bully and say NO MORE!

What a sad spectacle of a league the NFL is. 

Steve Clark

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