When Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin walked out on his team last week, the topic of bullying took on a new dimension — literally. Martin, a rookie from Stanford University, is a 6-foot-5, 312-pound offensive tackle, a two-time All-American and a second-round draft pick. But size doesn't correlate to bullying. The biggest bullies aren't necessarily the biggest kids, and vice versa.
The bully in this case was Martin's teammate and de facto Dolphins team leader Richie Incognito, whose college football career included suspensions and ejections for unsportsmanlike behavior. In a 2009 Sporting News poll of 99 NFL players, Incognito was picked as the league's "dirtiest player." That same year, he was released by the Tennessee Titans after committing two personal fouls in one game and getting in an argument with then-coach Steve Spagnuolo.
Incognito, a talented player and a 2012 Pro Bowler, was (and still is, by most accounts) respected by his Dolphins teammates, but now he's suspended indefinitely while the league investigates allegations that he heaped abuse on Martin in a misguided attempt to "toughen him up" — an assignment allegedly given him by at least one Dolphins coach.
NFL commentator Mike Ditka, who once coached the New Orleans Saints, suggested Martin should've taken Incognito to "Fist City," which struck many as a ridiculous, even childish, suggestion. For those who still think Martin should have settled this with his fists, consider that some would have called him a weakling because he couldn't take "teasing" and chose instead to throw a punch at a team leader.
To whom should Martin have complained? The team's "leadership council" consisted of six players, one of the most influential being Incognito. It's impossible to imagine coach Joe Philbin wasn't aware, at least generally, of his team's locker room culture. So Martin left and went public, the latter of which is a bigger sin to some Miami Dolphins (and some football fans) than the bullying itself.
In that respect, the NFL isn't much different than your neighborhood school. It's the same reason many states and municipalities, including Louisiana and New Orleans, have passed anti-bullying legislation and policies in recent years. In too many instances, kids who are bullied aren't backed up by their classmates, teachers or school administrators.
Tesa Middlebrook was one of those kids, according to her family. Middlebrook's family said she'd been bullied relentlessly in school, a claim school officials denied (while admitting they'd looked into two bullying reports filed by the family). Tesa hanged herself from the school bleachers in March 2012.
Despite a push in 2011 from state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, and state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, anti-bullying legislation was killed by conservative Louisiana lawmakers, largely at the behest of the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF), a social-conservative lobbying group. In 2012, after Middlebrook's suicide, several anti-bullying bills received support from statewide education and civil rights groups but still failed to garner enough votes. State Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, pulled her bill from committee last year when the measure was amended to remove language that defined bullying as harassment for a student's race, religion, illness or disability, and sexual identity or orientation.
Meanwhile, last year, state Sen. Rick Ward, D-Port Allen, introduced the Tesa Middlebrook Anti-Bullying Act. Ward's bill enumerated no motivating factors for bullying (such as gender, sexual preference and philosophical, political or religious views), and it listed no protected categories. In fact, Ward and the LFF crafted the measure without consulting the Middlebrook family. The bill rewrote substantial portions of Louisiana's existing law on bullying, and lawmakers passed it by lopsided margins.
Locally, former Orleans Parish School Board President (OPSB) Thomas Robichaux helped pass an updated anti-bullying policy for the city's public school system late last year, before his board term ended. The policy includes a long list of possible motivating factors for bullying. In June, less than six months into her term, new OPSB Vice President Leslie Ellison attempted to gut that policy during a highly contentious board meeting. Ellison raised some of the same objections that the LFF had used in the state Capitol, but her effort failed.
What all this proves is that Americans at every level are divided over how to deal with bullying — but we shouldn't be. Bullying at every level is wrong, period. Bullies should be punished, and victims of bullying should be protected — and praised when they have the guts to come forward.