There’s another side of sports, a side that rewards unnecessary violence and even suggests athletes are outside the law.
For the record, let me admit right up front that I’m not a sports fan. I never found any fun in watching people pummel each other to force balls across a line to score points. However, I’m the mother of sons. I can’t pretend to understand why, but I accept that boys enjoy rough play and competition and exhibitions of physical prowess. Is it DNA? I don’t know, I’m just a mom, not a geneticist. While my sons were growing up, I encouraged sports participation because I believed being on a team, training, and studying game strategy would build character, give them a purpose, and prevent boredom, which I believe is what contributes to destructive behavior in teens.
My sons are adults now and sports definitely shaped them into the men they are today. For my oldest, it was easy – ice hockey. He started at four. My youngest, however, tried T-ball and basketball and golf, but decided he preferred marching band over games. (If anybody doubts there’s any athletic ability required for marching band, contact me. I’d be happy to send you pictures of his injuries.) Despite the drastic differences in their athletic pursuits, both of my sons learned how their positions on the ice or on the field support all the others. They learned team work. They learned strategy and technique and skills.
But there’s another side of sports, another lesson kids learn. It’s a side that exists off the field, in locker rooms and on buses, a side that rewards unnecessary violence and even suggests athletes are outside the law. It’s a lesson in weeding out the weak, a lesson that teaches players to do whatever it takes to stay on top.
I want to emphasize one word in the previous paragraph: unnecessary. I understand professional sports are big deals to fans and players and I appreciate that for many players, there’s a limited shelf-life, which probably compels them to fierce levels of competition. But sports fields are not battlefields where lives could be lost. Why, then, is there so much emphasis placed on toughness?
After Jonathan Martin left the Dolphins under alleged allegations of bullying by teammate Richie Incognito, I was reminded of the infamous Mepham High School hazing story. It happened during a five-day football training camp and allegedly involved sodomy with pinecones, broomsticks, golf balls that resulted in one freshman victim requiring surgery and the eventual cancellation of the entire football season. The community’s reaction? Outrage over lost scholarships and cancelled fundraisers, threats sent to the parents of the victims, and a wall of silence in which the bystanders who witnessed these crimes refused to come forward because the team meant more to them than the law. The students accused of these crimes were not suspended, which forced their victims to endure prolonged contact and further distress. In the years that have passed since this story broke, numerous profiles of the alleged perpetrators have been published. Most characterize the ringleader as a ‘dirtbag’ who started fights, beat people up for no reason. So why was he allowed to play? Because he was an excellent player.
The only lesson I see being taught here is that winning is all that matters.
I searched Google for hazing incidents and found thousands. In an article posted on the National Football Post website, I learned New Orleans Saints tight end Cam Cleeland is partially blind in one eye from linebacker Andre Royal swinging a coin-filled sock at his face during a traditional gauntlet run. Cleeland stated that Coach Mike Ditka told him he should have punched the guy in the mouth, but Cleeland reminded him there were sixty guys participating in this hazing ritual. He’d already suffered a broken eye socket and broken nose. How much more was he expected to endure?
I also learned Cleeland and Incognito were teammates once, while on the St. Louis Rams. Incognito has quite a violent record that includes spitting on players, picking fights on the field, in locker rooms, and during practice, and was even directed to attend anger management sessions. Off the field, he’s been charged with assault and during his stint with the Rams, was benched for headbutting players on an opposing team, personal fouls that cost him $50,000 in NFL fines. Cleeland has publicly called Incognito a ‘locker room cancer’ and yet, Jonathan Martin is the one everyone is criticizing for walking out on his team. Miami Dolphins team mates are supporting Incognito.
In a November 14th, 2013 ESPN blog post, left tackle Bryant McKinnie suggests all locker rooms are environments that encourage aggression. Why? Why is this considered normal operating procedure? How does hazing build stronger teams? How does enduring threats and even broken bones develop trust among team mates? I have no answers and no frame of reference, so I asked some friends who’ve played sports – particularly football, for their insight. Specifically, I asked them to take a side. Overwhelmingly, the men I spoke to agree that Jonathan Martin is the one who did wrong here.
Here are some of the reactions I got:
- “Suck it up!”
- “Martin needs to toughen up. Teammates are like family and if you don’t like the family, run away from home. Playing pro ball is a privilege! I would take hazing for an NFL contract any day.”
- “We are not talking about children. We are taking about men being foolish and stupid. Martin must have experienced this on several levels during his career…if it bothered him so much and he was scared, he could have easily gone to his coach or union rep.”
- “Bottom line is these are grown men…not children. We are faced with challenges all the time in everyday life it is how we overcome them that defines us.”
- “They were teammates like coworkers not boss and employee. It’s the nature of competitive sports mental and physical intimidation. If your teammates and coaches don’t prepare you for battle, your opponents will chew you up and spit you out… period end of story.”
- “Football is a violent game played by violent men and at that level it’s right up there with Gladiatorial Games.”
- “The game is not just about violence. It is a battle between two sides the most violent team does not always win. The team that balances its mental and physical skills usually wins. Martin and Incognito live in the trenches, they need to be physically tough. The concept of football is a great life lesson… every play ends with someone getting knocked on his back, dusting off the dirt, and trying again or achieving a goal – a first down, touch down, victory. More people these days need to set and achieve goals and while they are trying, need to learn how to get off their asses, dust off, and go for it again.
I still can’t grasp how Incognito’s alleged threats and racial slurs and other behavior would build anything except animosity. When I admitted this, some of those same friends candidly revealed what really goes on in the locker room. Harmless hazing rituals like shaving cream in equipment, fetching food for the entire team and so on help newbies feel like they’ve earned their place in the brotherhood, but there were incidents like beatings, getting urinated on, public humiliation. Where is the line between hazing and bullying? Is there a line at all?
As a mom of a child who was bullied and the author of a novel on the subject, this doesn’t just concern me, it worries me. Am I contributing to the bullying problem by allowing my sons to play? Something one of my friends said suggests that’s exactly what I’m doing. He claims the reason there’s so much public outcry against Martin is not because nobody believes he was bullied; it’s because they had been similarly abused and enjoyed reaching that point when they could, in turn, pay it forward.
Another friend admitted hazing was institutionalized. When he reported it to the coaches, he was deemed a trouble maker. The incidents escalated from harmless to dangerous when he was injured during practice, an injury he maintains was deliberate. He admits that it did nothing to develop his sense of ‘team’.
My research didn’t provide any answers – just more questions. Why is it manly to take beatings for a team that will kick you out the minute you can’t play? How does it build character to be urinated on? Perhaps it’s time for a new definition of tough.