NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Miami Dolphins

In grade four, my baseball cap was stolen from me and my basketball was heaved on top of the roof of a nearby school. I was shoved against a wall, and a kid two or three years older grabbed the collar of my t-shirt, made a fist with it and punched me. Tears welled up in my eyes.

It hurt, but the pain wasn’t physical. I’d been hit harder or at least suffered more sting while roughhousing with my friends. The salty water in my eyes was the result of feeling violated, of feeling the brunt of someone else’s unnecessary cruelty. Thankfully, this wasn’t something that I had to endure over an extended period of time. It was a one off, but it remains a part of memory, more accessible than a thousand nicer things that happened to me at the same age.

Looking back now, I recall being big for my age. I know the bully’s undefended punch didn’t render me unconscious. It didn’t even cause much pain. I probably could have defended myself, and I might have kept my Blue Jays hat for a little bit longer. But that didn’t seem like an option at the time. It felt like a theatrical play in which the roles in the unread script were inherently understood. He was the bully and I was the victim. It didn’t even cross my mind to attempt to overthrow that hierarchy.

I thought of this again after Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin left his team’s training facility last week amid reports of a mental breakdown. The details were murky, but it almost seemed formulaic: prank in the cafeteria plus razzing from teammates equals a food tray smashed and a man in need of emotional counselling.

A cryptic Facebook message from Martin followed, informing the world that there was more to the story than what was being reported. Then, we began to hear the term “bullying” being applied.

Bad behavior doesn’t really get under our collective skin until it has a label. Outrage, it seems, is easier for society to emote when it has a properly named target. Bullies have always existed, but “bullying” has only recently been recognized as being a distinct form of abusive behavior, and it’s only recently been approached as something about which we should be concerned.

We think of bullying as a form of physical domination that happens in our youth because for many of us, that’s how we experienced it. A bigger kid chucks our basketball and steals our hat. He pushes us, scrunches up our shirt and punches us. It’s traumatic, certainly more for those who had to experience it repeatedly, but most of us grow older and avoid those instances in the future.

It‘s hard to reconcile what we think of professional athletes with our notion of what comprises bullying. After all, bullying – in our minds – happens to weaklings, and sports stars are anything but that.

After an investigation was launched and teammate Richie Incognito was suspended from the team, we started to learn about some of the abuses Martin suffered. In addition to the typical rookie hazing rituals – like picking up a tab or two for veterans engaging in extra curricular activities – Martin received a voicemail from fellow offensive lineman Incognito that was used as an example of the type of relationship the 8-year pro had with the second-year player. It included a racial obscenity, a physical threat, a degrading threat and a threat on his life.

Miami head coach Joe Philbin was quick to deny any knowledge of such behavior, but did – perhaps inadvertently – take some responsibility for the issue by claiming that he was ultimately “in charge of the workplace atmosphere.” It was later revealed that members of the Dolphins coaching staff encouraged Incognito and other team leaders to toughen up some of the younger players like Martin who opted out of voluntary workouts.

In the aftermath of the revelations that followed Martin’s departure from the team, we’ve seen multiple supposed scapegoats led to slaughter on football’s altar. Perhaps the most distasteful of these is the belief that Incognito’s suspension is representative of a marginalization of masculinity, that Martin is somehow equally to blame for things getting out of hand because he didn’t stand up for himself or didn’t take his hazing like a man.

The argument suggests the punishment levied against Incognito further contributes to the sissyfication of man. It’s a ridiculous sentiment. Masculinity has always carried with it an elusive definition – dandies were regarded as the masculine ideal as recently as the 19th Century – but the one constant attribute associated with manliness is mettle. As Cicero said, “Man’s chief quality is courage.”

What further proof of strength of character is required from Martin than his evident unwillingness to bend to the dominant culture of his profession? In a sense, Martin is acting in a more masculine manner than Incognito, whose actions have been justified as reinforcing a hierarchy of values. Martin stands for himself, while Incognito demands he defer to the ideals of the majority.

The NFL’s culture has been brought up by pundits throughout this ordeal. It’s been used almost slyly as a subtle defense for Incognito’s deplorable actions. The excuse suggests that the problem is systemic, that Incognito was unaware he was crossing a line because that line has been blurred by the way men carry themselves league-wide.

Much has been made of the hazing that takes place in every organization, but paying for dinners, singing embarrassing songs, participating in skits, buying doughnuts, etc. is simply not comparable to threatening phone messages and personal harassment. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing arrangement requiring complete or zero tolerance.

In its most common usage, zero tolerance represents a complete lack of tolerance for intolerance, which is a bit like agreeing with someone who claims you disagree with everything they say. This isn’t the only contradiction that the phrase offers. The foundation of a zero tolerance policy seems to contain a tacit admission that nuance exists in whatever issue it governs, but that the complications surrounding the matter are too multifarious to navigate on an individual basis.

Understanding the difference between being called a racial epithet and dressing in a silly costume doesn’t necessitate a sociologist.

In the rush to use “it’s a culture thing” reasoning to understand every wrong, I wonder why a more nefarious association has yet to be mentioned. In a league that treats its players like disposable pieces of trash – non-guaranteed contracts, denial over impact of traumatic brain injuries, etc. – is it any wonder that those who’ve lasted in the league would treat newcomers in a similar fashion?