When I was in the 7th grade, I was bullied for a two-month period by a giant, zit-faced 8th grader who had a locker near mine.
Every day after P.E. class, I’d change my clothes next to this ugly behemoth and every day, without fail, he’d whip my back with a rolled up shower towel. Then he would proceed to call me a wuss and try to goad me into a fight.
I was pudgy, had glasses and was very quiet — in short, an easy target for a bully. I never responded and the abuse continued. Until one day, he got me a particularly hard snap of the wet towel and I lost it. I got right in his face.
Well, not quite his face as he was about two feet taller than me, but I got in his chest, I guess. For a moment, I felt as though I was 10-feet-tall. That was until he shoved me and I went flying awkwardly over the locker room bench.
I was fully expecting a beating but one never came, he turned his back to me and from that moment forward it never happened again.
Based on that experience, I feel a connection to Jonathan Martin, the Miami Dolphins offensive lineman who has been all over the news lately due to his being bullied by teammate Richie Incognito. Though he may not have stood up to Incognito directly, the fact his story has captured so much of the public’s imagination has allowed the opening of an expanded dialogue on rookie hazing and bullying in professional sports.
There’s something dark in our hearts that allows these types of behavior to happen.
Sports, by definition, are events that involve one or more human beings attempting to impose their will on another set of human beings. Football, in particular, is known for its macho culture, and the sport itself is comprised of human-sized testosterone glands bashing into each other.
Our primal bloodlust fuels our country’s insatiable appetite for the sport and we, as fans, celebrate and relish its violence.
But now, we’re seeing behind the curtain and are faced with the dark side of that hyper-masculine world. Verbal threats, racial abuse, intimidation and embarrassment are tools wielded against players on the same team. In the NFL, it appears the only person a player hates more than the opposition is the guy right next to you.
Not that all teams share the same problem — San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has reportedly created an environment on his team free of the type of harassment seen on the Dolphins.
Harbaugh, Martin’s college coach at Stanford, should be applauded for setting an example for a new paradigm in sports — making the locker room a safe work environment for professional athletes of all races, sexualities and personalities.
That is the type of action needed to prevent any more situations like the one seen with Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito. It will direct action — fines, suspensions, stricter laws — to ensure that professional sports catches up with the times and stamps out bullying.
Pro sports are often a good barometer for social change, as so many of the personalities involved in that business are insulated and part of a self-sustaining culture that is often many years behind where the rest of us are.
Take the instance of Miami Heat point guard Tim Hardaway, who in 2007, after it was announced that fellow player John Amaechi was gay, stated his opinion on how much he hated gay people.
“Well, you know I hate gay people, so I let it be known,” Hardaway said at the time. “I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be in the world or in the United States.”
Hardaway has since changed his tune, even calling Jason Collins, another NBA player who recently came out, to support him in his decision to come out.
Watching the world of the professional athlete, you can see social change play out in real time. If you can get professional athletes to change — anyone can.
It just takes one person to stand up.
As I looked up at the bully who had pushed me to the ground and who made my life so miserable for what felt like years, I felt bad. I saw how ugly he was inside and out and wondered if maybe he had been bullied which caused him to act that way.
I stood up but did not stoop to his level. In the coming years, we continued to attend the same schools and in the end, we laughed at the locker room antics.
I stood up.