N.C. Harrison recounts his own experiences with bullying coaches.
The Richard Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying scandal just keeps going on and getting worse. Many have been shocked by the racial animus and frenzied, animal aggression revealed by Incognito’s tweets, emails and voice messages to Mr. Martin. Others have been confused by how Martin’s teammates on the Miami Dolphins, many of them African-Americans, have sided with Incognito in this situation instead of with Martin, the victim of such horrific maltreatment.
Incognito’s actions, although inexcusable, are perhaps explicable in light of his own history. As a chubby, clumsy child, involved with organized athletics, Incognito suffered from rather vicious bullying directed towards him until his father told him to respond to such incidents with increased aggression. Incognito became stronger than others but, it seems, never moved beyond his place of weakness. A long period of playing American football, also, might have lead to concussions and micro-concussions which could have exaggerated any pre-existing tendencies towards a certain type of maladaptive social behavior. This would, better than almost anything else, provide an explanation for Incognito’s little half naked rage dance in a Miami bar a couple of years ago, because there is quite frankly no other way to understand that episode.
More important than what transpired between Incognito and Martin, however, or what might or might not have happened on Incognito’s own personal, drunken episode of Dancing With the Stars, is the larger culture of harassment and bullying that pervades the sport of American football. Although it was never at the level of what Jonathan Martin experienced I, too, felt the sting of this human unkindness during my own time playing football and this whole story has brought those memories surging to the fore.
It is important for me to say, first of all, that the bullying I experienced did not take place between my teammates. There were some good old fashioned schoolboy hijinks from time to time, to be sure, but mostly we existed in a state of genuine, kindhearted camaraderie and I consider many of those young men I played with to be my close friends to this very day. My bullying, unfortunately, came from a higher place, from my positional coach and, worst of all, perhaps, the team’s equipment manager.
We were pathetic lumps of Manteca somehow made ambulatory and stuffed into football pads.Nothing was ever quite good enough for this guy, as I remember. Every two or three minutes during practice, the other linemen and I were reminded that we were fat, ugly, uncoordinated and only played on the offensive line because were were “too slow” and not good enough to play one of the skill positions. Never mind that the offensive line is the linchpin of any team’s success (just ask the 2013 Atlanta Falcons) or that, without us, those precious skill position players would have been nothing more than little grease spots on the turf (ask those Falcons again, especially Matt Ryan)–no, pay no attention to any of that at all. We were pathetic lumps of Manteca somehow made ambulatory and stuffed into football pads.
This was not the worst part of his behavior, however. This coach, as the team’s equipment manager, was in charge of doling out the punishments for those who lost their pads, pants or other accoutrements. He enjoyed doing this so much that from time to time he would actually steal pieces of my equipment and make me beg for them so that I could dress out for practice. I often wondered, what with my disappearing girdle and all, if I had completely and utterly lost my mind. Once, ten minutes before time to get ready for a game, he held my jersey back from me. I went to tell our head coach, a really great but sort of passive guy, what was going on. Since he was busy playing Solitaire in the office and would have rather not moved until game time, he was naturally rather upset. “Just give him the jersey, for God’s sake,” he said, “we’ve got to go out there and try to play a football game.” This went on, sadly, for most of my eleventh grade season, with ever elevating levels of sturm and drang like a live action Road Runner cartoon.
In retrospect, I don’t know why I didn’t just quit the team. Hard-headedness, probably, or just inertia. I do know that it took another coach, this time for wrestling, in my senior year to help me get over some of these problems. He was short, only about five feet tall, and had wild, silver dreadlocks like a Rasta prince and a bristling iron grey beard that reached his waist. Eyes like dark, blazing embers could arrest you, bore through you, gazing out of that carved, weathered, mahogany face. You tended to believe things this man said, even if you didn’t quite know why. My mom called it that, “Weird ninja Jedi stuff.” I… thought of it as somewhere between a shared delusion and actual magic.
I remember his orders to me, and another heavyweight wrestler, to turn cartwheels like our smaller brethren. “We just can’t,” I said. My compatriot agreed. “We’re just the big guys… we’re fat and slow and would hurt ourselves.” He nodded.
“Crazy!” Yoda said. “Aint making no sense to me! Go ahead and do those cartwheels.”
“Okay,” I said. “We’ll try.”
“Don’t try,” he shouted–he always seemed to shout–and stamped the gnarled, bare feet of a longtime judoka. “Just go ahead and do them! You think they ‘tried’ back in the olden days, in Bible times?” It didn’t matter, somehow, that this didn’t make any sort of real sense. My friend and I turned cartwheels, front flips, back flips and round offs all day, every day for the rest of the season… or, at least, until I wrecked my knee in an ankle pick and sat flat on my bottom for two months.
I don’t know who will provide this message–about how they did things in the olden days, in Bible times–to Mr. Martin. Maybe, since he’s a scholar of the Classical world, he already knows. I am certain that by using his gigantic, Stanford-educated brain, he will figure it out and find himself in a saner, happier, healthier place than the Miami Dolphins locker room. Like, say, a warzone between the rats and cockroaches in a sewer pipe. Yeah, even that would be a step up.