The complicated case of Jonathan Martin raises questions about the truth behind locker-room culture
It’s been an interesting year for football, replete with a surprising number of allegations of bullying. Until this season, I had not really considered the question of whether you can have bullying in a voluntary, violent activity. Accusations first appeared when Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti accused Washington State Coach Mike Leach of trying to score repeatedly against what Aliotti described as his “scout team” at the end of the game. The unique twist? The accused bully lost the game to Oregon, 62-38. Then came the Texas high school game between Aledo and Western Hills, which Aledo won 91-0 despite pulling its starters after 21 plays. Afterward, a Western Hills parent filed a bullying complaint with the school district against the Aledo coaches. By law, an investigation was conducted, which presumably revealed the startling fact that some football teams are simply better than others.
The problem with allegations like these is that they diminish real cases of bullying—the kind that result in real injury and that don’t take place in the context of a voluntary physical battle. Such is the complicated case of Miami Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin, who left the team in late October to deal with emotional issues resulting from alleged bullying from Dolphins guard Richie Incognito. Yes, it is possible for a 320-pound man to be bullied—which serves as a reminder that there is not a singular prototype for those who might be susceptible to bullying. While it’s tempting to put the Martin case in the category of the cases above and chalk it up to the culture of the football locker room, several aspects of the scenario require a more nuanced look. First, even in a locker room, the racial slurs and other comments attributed to Incognito are beyond the pale. Second, you could not have a more villainous antagonist than Incognito, who has had his share of dust-ups.