Sports and Bullying

You may have been following or at least heard about the story currently going on in Miami where Dolphins player Richie Incognito is alleged to have bullied young teammate Jonathan Martin, including calling him a “half-nigger”… Incognito is white by the way.

Now plenty of people have been writing about this story and I’m not going to go into details about this specific story, but as someone who cares about both sport and mental health, I figured I could give my perspective on that side of things as bullying is commonplace to various degrees in sporting culture, both at professional and amateur level.

Much like working in business, personality type and thick skin is something that goes a long way in team sports. There is a culture in many team sports, especially in the US, where rookies get “hazed” for basically their entire rookie year. Sometimes it involves carrying all the team bags and paying for dinner. Sometimes it gets a lot worse.

Now in the jock culture amongst all the alpha males in sport, many players handle it just fine and it is no big deal. They consider it a rite of passage and look forward to putting rookies through it when they are veterans. Some teams actually encourage making life difficult for younger players as it weeds out those players that they consider mentally weak or not a team player. The problem is, a lot of the time, players that struggle with these things have no issue in terms of their mental toughness as an actual athlete.

In society we expect cultures to grow and evolve as certain things become more or less acceptable. Sometimes sport is at the forefront of those social changes, however sometimes they lag behind.

Sports have been great in terms of breaking racial barriers and the like (even if Incognito said racist things himself), but where it struggles is when it comes to what defines a man. This also relates to the homophobia in sport amongst other things that go against the old school idea of what a real man is.

Now I am a big believer in team chemistry and that you need a team that works together and respects each other to be successful. The whole champion team over a team of champions thing. But is hazing really the best way to establish that chemistry and keep players in check?

The military has a similar culture, where drill sergeants and other soldiers attempt to break the new recruits and on some level it does work. Those who can’t deal with it leave and they are left with only those that can. But I would argue that plenty of those who can’t handle the bullying tactics would be just as capable soldiers and athletes if they were dealt with in a way that was more conducive to their personality.

After all, everyone is different. Some people respond to the carrot and some respond to the stick. Also, there are going to be assholes in all situations in life. In cultures that accept bullying and in fact thrive off it, those assholes are going to flourish and be drawn to.

I’ve recently started watching the show ‘Suits’ (this next bit will have some spoilers in it) and this Dolphins situation actually reminds me of how Louis Litt treats the associates who report to him. His job is to break them and push them so that they know what it takes to become a successful lawyer in such a dog eat dog world, full of alpha personalities.

Admittedly, it works for them, as it does in real life in many situations, because at the end of the day the team or company or army don’t really need to care about those who can’t handle it and leave, because they will just find more who can. But society is evolving and just because things have been done a certain way for a long time does not mean it is the right way for it to be going forward.

Some would argue if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it… but a situation like the Jonathan Martin case is a reflection of a system and culture that clearly is broken. Jonathan Martin is the case that has public attention, because Martin took action, but I imagine there are many like him every single year across many team sports.

A lot of athletes are genuinely good people, but we all are influenced by the culture of the situation we are in. If something is considered acceptable since before you got there, you tend to go with the flow of it and thus many athletes who wouldn’t naturally act as bullies end up embracing it just because that’s how it is already.

Hopefully this Jonathan Martin case can be a catalyst for change.

The NBA has already put out a memo to all teams about them taking bullying and hazing seriously and telling teams to end the traditional rookie hazing programs. Some may hate that, but I think it is the right thing to do.

It is time to be proactive about this because if something is not considered acceptable in mainstream society anymore, such as bullying, it also has no place in sport.

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