Meridian Star

November 6, 2013

Bullying culture needs to be cut out of football

Tony Tsoukalas
The Meridian Star

—     Forget the 6-foot-3, 319-pound man or the video of him angrily strutting around a bar dropping racial expletives — Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito is just another bully.

    Taking size out of the equation is the first step to realizing the true conflict between Incognito and teammate Jonathan Martin, who recently checked himself into a South Florida hospital and was treated for emotional distress presumably caused from high-level harassment from Incognito.

    By the way, Martin’s not a slight man either at 6-foot-5, 312 pounds.

    However, bullying isn’t measured on scales. It sits on the heart of its victims and tears them apart. It festers deep inside, causing fear, anxiety and shame. The hurt Martin was dealing with was enough to drive him to quit his job — a job he and millions of children grow up dreaming of having.

    Say what you want about how Martin handled the situation or whether or not he should have stood up to Incognito. I for one will not pretend to understand the amount of stress and personal grief he was under.

    The simple fact is bullying can often be severely detrimental and is a problem that needs to be addressed, not only in sports but in society as well.

    Incognito’s actions are an extreme example of the gang mentality that has become all too common in both professional and non-professional football. The idea that rookies or freshman have to “pay dues” brings with it a gray area. The practice of rookie hazing often helps “toughen up” players and develops discipline. But, as seen by Incognito and Martin, detrimental scenarios can escalate quickly.

    Lamar School head football coach Mac Barnes, whose Raiders start a freshman at quarterback, said he has zero tolerance for rookie hazing.

    “I’ve always been against it because there are no rules to it,” he said. “It can change from hazing out of fun to really being mean. I have nothing for any kind of those things. Hazing has always been unacceptable to me. Some say it’s just part of it, but I disagree.”

    While controlling hazing on the field should be the first step for any coach, plenty of times the worst offenses are done outside the locker room. Transcripts of voice mails and text messages sent from Incognito to Martin indicate racist and profane remarks for an extended period of time.

    In high school, the opportunities to bully grow even more. Kids are constantly put in situations where they can not escape harassment, whether it be in school or through social media.

    Coaches can only do so much to stop bullying. While they can’t be with athletes at all times, they can set a precedent for how an individual should be treated.     

    Rookie and freshman chores, such as setting up and cleaning the practice field, can be beneficial. They can create a drive in a younger player to push through and attain the level of success of his peers. It also serves as a reward for those who have dedicated their hard work and sweat to the team.

    However, players should always be treated with respect, no matter their age or rank on the team. Barnes will tell you anytime a successful team hits the field, they do so as a unit.

    “You can never have a true team environment when you have any group of player think they are better than the others,” Barnes said. “You have to earn your keep, but it should never come under a situation where someone thinks they are better than someone else.”  

    Football does a lot to help harden boys into men. It also shapes their character. Maybe it’s time we examine the culture these young men are surrounded by in order to develop more Mac Barneses and less Richie Incognitos in the future.