BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, another story about bullying made headlines, probably because of the characters and the locale, not teenagers on social media, but football players in the NFL. It’s easy to be outraged when the victim in question is a 13-year-old girl, but when the victim is a really big man who slams into other men for a living, the narrative isn’t always so clear cut. And, according to NPR Sports Correspondent Mike Pesca, the media’s story of the two Miami Dolphin players morphed as the week wore on.
MIKE PESCA: For a couple of days when it was reported, it seemed like what happened was that Jonathan Martin left the Dolphins training facility. Why? He was the subject of a prank gone wrong, ribbing. The word “ribbing” was actually in an AP article. The Sun Sentinel, quoting unnamed sources, say that it was Martin's emotional problems that caused this to happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This particular position is helped along by the fact that Martin was a Stanford-educated football player who studied classics, with a focus on ancient history. He was the child of Harvard grads. He’s a softy.
MIKE PESCA: When he was at Stanford, the story was our amazing offensive tackle, who everyone knows is great at his position and, therefore, a tough guy, is kind of an intellect. And coming into the draft, it was one of those stories were he was, wow, look at the dimension that this guy has. But yes, the word “soft” was attached to him. The story dies down a little bit, and then it comes out that it was a spat between Martin and Richie Incognito. And the word “bullying” was put out there and the word “hazing” was put out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Dolphins initially released a statement saying that this notion of bullying was speculation and that the team hadn’t received a complaint from Martin about bullying. Here's former NFL player Antonio Pierce earlier this week on ESPN:
ANTONIO PIERCE: Where did the word “bully” come from, right? It wasn’t Martin. It hasn’t come from that locker room. Who made up this scenario that he was actually bullied?
MIKE PESCA: There was a debate, a pretty low-minded debate, in some places that shouldn't be low minded, like CNN and elsewhere, where they asked how can a huge guy, how can a guy who weighs 315 pounds, how can he really be bullied? And then –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The story evolved.
MIKE PESCA: Devolved, really.
When it was revealed that Richie Incognito issued death threats to him, allegedly, and used vile racist language. Many people said, there's no place for this, the NFL's really got to crack down on the culture of hazing and this sort of culture, but there was a another debate that went on a little below the surface, but you had a dozen players, former players - Ross Tucker, Mike Ditka, Ricky Williams and Antrel Rolle of the Giants, all these guys saying, just punch him in the nose, that’s the way to stand up to a bully.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We assembled a montage from ESPN Radio, after the narrative shifted a little bit.
COMMENTATOR: All these media people saying that Jonathan Martin needs to stand up to Richie Incognito. You stand up to Incognito! He’s an insane person. He bench presses 600 pounds.
COMMENTATOR: Despised by players, history as a bully, bar fight recently. He’s a thug, a bigot.
COMMENTATOR: Incognito’s crazy. Like he’s nuts. He’s not just gonna say –
COMMENTATOR: Right now you just – you punch the bully in the mouth. That’s how you beat him. No! He’s gonna start terrorizing.
MIKE PESCA: Those are some sports talk jocks, actually saying sensible things, [LAUGHS] which I didn't hear from a lot of the athletes. And it definitely becomes the sort of thing that callers can debate and the host can give his opinion, then other callers, I heard this one, “You know, in my neighborhood, we handle this.” You mean, in your neighborhood when you were eight, yeah.
You had a lot of six-two, 325-pound guys in your neighborhood? Okay.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then later in the week, it seemed like the narrative may have shifted, yet again. People like Tyson Clabo, who was a teammate, told reporters that Incognito is being perceived as this psychopathic racist but he's a good teammate, and other Dolphins said they didn't understand where this is coming from. So are we moving back now to this being Martin's problem and not Incognito's?
MIKE PESCA: Well, I think what happened is that the locker room was open on Thursday, and they got a lot of quotes and teams always going to rally and see things as us versus them. That reminds me of a lot of the your military hazing scandals –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah!
MIKE PESCA: - where the people who are still there and are still wearing the uniform, they lash out against the accuser. Martin chose to take himself out of the situation, and Incognito was forcibly removed. Teammates sometimes trump all. Also, if you are a member of that locker room and you have a different opinion, well, you’re not gonna voice it, right, because then you’re seen as tearing the team apart.
So they’re kind of, in a way, the last people on earth that you want to ask about the broader bird’s eye view, was this bullying, was this hazing, does this say something about the culture?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think it would have made a difference if Richie Incognito didn’t have the name of a comic book villain?
MIKE PESCA: [LAUGHS] Well, I think that his name should allow him to escape being identified, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Mike, thank you very much.
MIKE PESCA: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mike Pesca is a sports correspondent for NPR.