Calling bullying 'bonding' doesn't make it OK

In the professional world, threats and insults constitute harassment. Even if that world is the mean and tough NFL.

Jonathan Martin

Miami Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin watches from the sidelines during the second half of a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012. (Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press / December 16, 2012)

It's hard to think of Jonathan Martin as a hapless victim of bullying. He's 6 foot 5, 312 pounds, with a Stanford education and a job he loves.

At least he seemed to love it until last week, when he walked away from the Miami Dolphins football team because of what he considered relentless torment and his teammates considered harmless hijinks.

Was it bullying or bonding? The conduct included racial slurs, ugly insults and crude threats — packaged as an effort to toughen up a young player who loves literature as much as he loves football.

Martin, 24, checked into a hospital for emotional distress, then headed home to Southern California with his parents. Teammate Richie Incognito — his mentor and tormentor — has been suspended by the Dolphins for conduct detrimental to the team.

Sports commentators have been flailing around on TV and radio all week, trying to find a way to categorize this: It's racism because Incognito used the N-word in a message to Martin. Or classism because players from elite schools are considered soft targets in raucous locker rooms.

The players themselves seem to have trouble distinguishing villain from victim.

Incognito is, depending on perspective, a bully or a builder. A Pro Bowl player with a years-long rap sheet of offenses and suspensions, he was once voted the "dirtiest player" in the NFL. But he was also elected by his teammates to the Dolphins' leadership council.

Martin, a second-year player of uncertain potential, is now an object of derision: He didn't fit in. He should have fought back. He's a thin-skinned wimp who'll pay the price for ratting out a teammate.

In the National Football League, that just isn't done. That's what makes this case a shocker.

It's not the hazing and slurs; we've encountered that before.

It's the fact that one young player — known as "Moose" at Stanford and "Big Weirdo" by the Dolphins — dared to breach the macho locker room code by refusing to tolerate treatment that no workplace should allow.


Martin is not the one who ought to be embarrassed. The "weirdo" label belongs on Incognito and his crew.

What's been described as the last straw for Martin sounds like a scene from the "Mean Girls" movie: Martin sits down at a cafeteria table and a bunch of giant football players stand up, grab their trays and flounce off.

Really, guys? "You can't sit with us." That's your team-building strategy?

The Dolphins' offensive line — where Martin and Incognito play side by side — is the worst in the league at its most important job. They've allowed the team's quarterback to be sacked 35 times in the season's first eight games.

Does Incognito think that threatening to slap Martin's mother — as he did in his foul-mouthed voicemail — is going to make the young man play better and improve the team's performance?

I understand the role of hazing in building camaraderie. It's probably at its most extreme in football, where player tenure is short and pecking order matters.

But where's the line? When does it shift from demanding to demeaning?

The Dolphins' fan brochure for its Halloween game included team leader Incognito calling Martin "the easiest teammate to scare."

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