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Jonathan Martin and Me

Everybody, it seems, has an opinion about what’s been going on between Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito, the Miami Dolphin linemen. In case you missed it, Incognito was suspended from the team for alleged verbal abuse of his teammate. Martin left the team and was treated for emotional distress.

I have read almost every blog, article and column on this fascinating story. I noticed a couple of things that I think have been left out, based on my own experience.

First of all, let me say I can understand where Jonathan Martin is coming from.

Any African-American male who speaks in complete sentences and is well educated is often treated like a unicorn. The slave mentality is still prevalent in our so-called “post-racial society.” Any form of academic achievement is judged critically. Studying and getting good grades is criticized as “being white.” I guess Chris Rock was right when he said getting out of jail earns more respect than getting out of graduate school. This sick and twisted logic is part of what’s going on in the Dolphins locker room. Jonathan Martin is being treated like a second-class citizen in this environment because he’s thoughtful and well educated while Incognito, a longtime troublemaker, gets the support of his teammates. Is it because Martin’s black? Because he’s smart? Because he wasn’t a good enough player?

I played football in high school. When I wasn’t playing well, my teammates and my coaches got on me about it. Hard. Was I bullied? I didn’t feel that way. I felt like my teammates were just breaking my balls.

I had two choices in that situation:  Stand up for myself and play better or take the abuse. I decided to stand up for myself and to focus on getting better. Once I did, things got better for me. I earned the respect of my teammates and the taunting or bullying stopped. This is thing that most of us who’ve played sports has to figure out. If I quit, am I confirming my teammates’ suspicion that I’m weak? If that happens, you’re finished. You’re never looked at the same way again.

But that mentality can backfire.

One of my high school teammates was teased mercilessly. I didn’t tease him but I often wondered why he allowed it for so long, and I came to disrespect him too. I was talking with some of my high school teammates yesterday about locker-room politics and bullying. I brought up what our team did to that teammate. We agreed that we owed him apology—not that it does any good now.

Martin is a man who doesn’t fit at many levels. He doesn’t fit in with some of his teammates because he’s smart. He doesn’t fit in with others because he’s seen as not black enough, whatever that means.

A former Dolphin, who is an African-American, said this to a Miami Herald reporter:

“I don’t expect you to understand because you’re not black. But being a black guy, being a brother is more than just about skin color. It’s about how you carry yourself. How you play. Where you come from. What you’ve experienced. A lot of things.”

Translation: Martin is a man without a faction in a brutal world where surviving on one’s own is treacherous if not impossible.

I believe Martin should have stood up for himself. I believe he should have pushed himself to play better if he could and to leave every ounce of sweat and blood on the turf if he couldn’t. Maybe you think I’m being naïve, or that I’m taking the side of the bullies of the world.

I’m not. Unless you’ve played a team sport, unless you’ve struggled to win approval in a culture of violent competition, you just don’t know.

But there’s another side to this. Martin probably could have done more to help himself. But the Dolphins who joined Incognito in harassing their teammate could have done more, too.

Sports can be brutal. Teammates can be cruel. People can lose track of the line between healthy aggression and torture. That’s life. That’s sports. But that doesn’t mean the players involved have no choices. Every one has a responsibility—not to be a team player, not to be a winner, not to be a black man, a white man, a college man, a lineman…. The responsibility is to be a human.

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