Jonathan Martin, starting offensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins. 24 years old. 6′ 5″ and well north of 300 pounds. Apparent victim of bullying?
I have been a football fan since I can remember growing up in Colorado watching John Elway and the Denver Broncos. I was the kind of kid that if the Broncos lost on a Sunday, I went to school in a bad mood on Monday. Although I am not quite the die hard football fan of my childhood, I still watch and enjoy a game or part of a game most Sundays.
I have been watching the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito story with great interest and think it has much to teach us not only about the culture that can often surround team sports, but also bullying in general.
First, we still struggle as a society with what is bullying and what is not.
The definition from stopbullying.gov states,
“Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems.”
There are a couple of key parts in this definition. First, there must be an imbalance in power. Jonathan Martin was a second year player while the well-established Incognito was a veteran who had the support of his teammates (evidenced by all the blame-the-victim garbage coming from the Dolphins’ and other NFL players these past few days). Next, the behavior must be repeated, which from what has been reported in the media, there certainly was a lengthy pattern of behavior from Incognito.
Within schools, we struggle with defining bullying as well. Many times, students and parents report a one time negative experience with another student they’ve had as an instance of “bullying” while they remain silent about more serious things going on that absolutely should be reported.
Second, we struggle with what is a normal part of growing up/being a part of a team and what is behavior that can not be tolerated by anyone. The Dolphins clearly didn’t seem to know or care about the location of that line. Incognito reportedly had a mandate from the coaching staff to “toughen up” Martin and the general manager of the team suggested Martin should have handled it by punching Incognito in the face.
Unfortunately, we can be tempted to fall into the same dumb thinking on this subject. We’ll say “kids will be kids” or fail to understand the risk that kids take when they report bullying to those in authority as evidenced by the reaction to Martin. They could be subject to retribution, isolation, or labeled as weak. A “tattletail” or “crybaby.” The NFL version of this has happened to Martin over the last several days and it is unclear if he will be welcomed back by his Dolphins teammates or any other team for that matter.
What can we learn from Incognito, Martin, and the Miami Dolphins?
Although I wish I could tell you the exact steps to eliminate bullying in your school, the problem is complex and ongoing.
First, we must recognize the bullying problem that exists in our schools. It is happening. That’s not to say that we aren’t trying our best or taking appropriate steps to stop it, but we must acknowledge that it is happening. If we think there is no bullying that takes place in our school we are either naive or lying to ourselves.
Second, we must seek to build a culture where bullying is not ok. This takes a comprehensive effort with buy in from leadership, school staff, parents, students, and community. So much of what is done in schools to prevent bullying is not effective because it it not comprehensive and ongoing. It might be a nice starting point to have an anti-bullying assembly or program, but it won’t have much meaning or impact if it isn’t followed up by continual teaching of appropriate skills to our students and continually communicating and redoubling our efforts as adults. We all must know what bullying is, what to do when it happens, and the steps to take to prevent it again in the future. Social Emotional Learning should be the cornerstone of every excellent school.
We must all combat the kind of thinking or culture that blames the victim or accepts bullying as an inevitable part of sports or growing up. We can do better and our kids deserve better. The next Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin are playing our on our playgrounds today. What will we do to ensure a better future for them?