Go Pick on Someone the Size of a House: “Bullying” in the NFL

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Yet another victim has fallen into the hungry maw of bullies. Another Rebecca Sedwick? Another Phoebe Prince? Thankfully, this is a man who did not die by his own hand, but still martyred himself to make us aware of an insidious problem. Jonathan Martin, an offensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins, endured a hardscrabble life, with nothing to go on but the example of a struggling Harvard professor for a father and a mother scraping by as a corporate lawyer. He grew to be a whisp of a figure, a mere 6’5″, 312 pounds, living no doubt on Ramen noodles and a paltry $390,000 salary in 2012. He was constantly mocked at work–at one point forced to pay for the expensive meals of his teammates. Ironically, it was at the lunch table that he’d had enough. He sat down, and everyone at the table got up. That was it. Off to therapy, and goodbye Miami Dolphins.

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Can we stop saying that Martin was the victim of bullying?

I guess by a strict definition of the term, he was. Bullying is “the use of force, threat or coercion to abuse, intimidate or aggressively to impose domination over another.”  (Wikipedia). I like this definition better, simply because it fits my thesis: a bully is a person who is “habitually cruel or overbearing, especially to smaller or weaker people.” (The Freedictionary.com) From whatever definition you believe, it seems essential to the bully/bullor(?) relationship that one of the parties is weaker. Not weaker like Spiderman is weaker than The Hulk, weaker like a small boy or girl is weaker than a bigger or more popular boy or girl.

Recall the initial weeks after the Columbine attack. The media reflex was to suggest that the two killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klybold, were the victims of bullying who just snapped. Scholarship has since suggested otherwise. Not to say they weren’t bullied to some extent, but it appears that one was sociopathic and the other more of a follower. (I can’t recommend highly enough the book “Columbine” by David Cullen, an exhaustive and engrossing study of pretty much all the evidence available on the attack. See also “Columbine, Bullying and the Mind of Eric Harris,” a 2009 blog post by Dr. Peter Langman for Psychology Today.)

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Another relevant resource is an October article by Kelly McBride, an expert on journalistic ethics for the Poynter Institute. She wrote in an article entitled, “Bullying is Not On The Rise and Does Not Lead to Suicide” that…uhm, I guess it’s in the title. The media’s rush to judgment blaming bullies for suicide causes us to “miss opportunities to educate the public about the things we could be doing to reduce both bullying and suicide.”

There’s another facet to this issue which begs to be addressed. One day in September, 2013, Rebecca Sedwick found life so difficult that she decided throwing herself from a tower onto concrete was a preferable option. Rebecca was 12, she would have turned 13 in October. If you see a picture of her accompanying any of the many articles about her, you’ll see a girl who looks like any 12 year old girl. It has been suggested that as many as 15 girls were bullying Rebecca.

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Phoebe Prince also looks like a typical young girl in photos. She grew up in Ireland before coming to the US, got into relationships with a couple boys and drew the ire of their girlfriends. She may have brought mental health issues with her when she came from overseas, but she was bullied and she hanged herself.

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Fifteen year old Bart Palosz endured years of abuse after coming over from Poland.  One day, his head was driven into a school locker, requiring an emergency room visit and stitches. After only the first day of class in a new year, he chose a shotgun blast to the chest over a second day.

McBride points out that these cases “are easy to sensationalize and they tap into a common narrative that children today are spinning out of control as a result of technology and popular culture.”  These cases are easy to sensationalize because they involve the most vulnerable of victims and a tragic result. It is very likely these kids had other issues going on besides abuse at school. The media does not provide much insight as to what those issues may have been.   Nonetheless, so many kids like these have had enough, and whether it’s the result of bullies or a cocktail of bullies and mental illness, these kids have become the symbols of bullying and the damage it can either cause or assist.  It seems wrong to liken the experience of these kids to that of Jonathan Martin.

Of course, you charge, I’m grossly simplifying the football player’s experience. What do I know about the demons tapping on his shoulder or the voices he hears at night? Martin’s story involves an element of racism, although it is uncertain what if any relationship racist language had to his escape from football. I’ve never been a victim of racism, and I’m not here to say it’s no big deal. Life for Martin with the Dolphins may have been pure hell. It may be he simply wanted an excuse to stop being beaten up every Sunday. Whichever it is, it is not simply a semantic distinction to say that he was possibly the victim of workplace harassment, of hazing, of victimization by a crazed stalker with an ironic name. Let’s not say he was bullied.

Now, can we stop hearing about this story?

About Robert Phillips

Robert Phillips is a Miami lawyer still deciding what he wants to do for a living. Once a lover of Pynchon, Pinter, and any other artist whose work he barely understood, he has since "come home" to genre fiction and fandom, where he truly belongs. He focuses most of his fan-attention on his wife Elena and his three little girls, who will one day be a female president, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and a supermodel/astrophysicist. (He's not sure which one will be which yet.)
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