In this Dec. 16, 2012 file photo, Miami Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin (71) watches from the sidelines during the second half of an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)
by Paul Newberry
AP Sports Columnist
To his Miami Dolphins teammates, Jonathan Martin came across as someone who needed “toughening up.”
But what does that mean, exactly, when you’re talking about a 6-foot-4, 320-pound guy who already had proven he was tough enough to play a violent, brutal sport at the highest level?
We suspect the ugly episode in south Florida is more about Martin being different from those around him — quiet, aloof, perhaps a bit of a gentle giant who had never been subjected to real bullying because he was always the biggest guy in the room.
All around the NFL, there are those who can’t figure out why Martin didn’t retaliate with insults or threats or even fisticuffs if indeed he was harassed mercilessly by teammate Richie Incognito and perhaps other Miami players.
“My mom taught me and my dad taught me how to get rid of bullies,” said Antonio Smith of the Houston Texans. “They used to always say, “You hit a bully in the mouth.'”
Martin took a different tact.
He kept turning the other cheek, allegedly enduring a pattern of cruel insults and hurtful slights that very likely came with the tacit approval of a coaching staff that really didn’t understand Martin, either.
Finally, when he couldn’t take it anymore, he walked away.
In the NFL, with all its bravado and macho overtones, that made him look weak — like he needed toughening up.
“Things like that have got to change,” said Roddy White, a star receiver for the Atlanta Falcons. “You can’t really go out there and make a guy feel that way, where he doesn’t want to be in the locker room with his teammates.”
More than being about rookie hazing or the rigid hierarchy in an NFL locker room — two factors that aren’t likely to change, no matter what the league finds in its investigation — this case points to the need for those in football and all sports, really, to be more tolerant of those who don’t necessarily conform to the mold imposed by the majority.
While there are many uniform traits that go into the making of an elite athlete (intense focus, devoted work ethic, extreme competitiveness), they don’t come in a one-size-fits-all package.
Martin certainly doesn’t fit the standard image of an NFL lineman. He is both brawn and brains, the son and grandson of Harvard graduates, someone who majored in the classics at Stanford while protecting Andrew Luck’s blind side.
But he struggled as many rookie linemen do in the NFL, picking up the reputation for being “soft” — the worst of all four-letter words for a football player.
In retrospect, it seems that label had little to do with how Martin performed on the field and everything to do with how he dealt with those around him. There are reports of Martin resisting the traditional initiation rookies have long endured, from silly pranks to paying for meals that can cost thousands of dollars. That surely didn’t win him any friends. And it’s easy to see him rejecting overtures to hang out with his fellow linemen away from the training facility, especially if they were giving him such a hard time. That would’ve made him even more of a pariah.
And, in the midst of all that, the mandate came down from somebody: Make this guy “tougher.”
What they really meant: Make this guy conform.
“I don’t know if you can really do that,” White said. “You get guys from different backgrounds, different personalities, all these guys coming from different histories. You can’t really say, ‘I’m going to make this guy tougher’ or ‘I’m going to make this guy be this type of player.’ You can’t really transform players.”
That said, it takes a thick skin to survive in an NFL locker room.
It can get very, very cruel in there.
“It’s like being a room with a bunch of comedians. It’s funny. It makes you laugh,” said Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, who’s pretty much seen it all during his 17 years in the league. “But just as comedians are, sometimes they push the line. They go overboard a little bit and say stuff that’s racially or economically (charged). Nothing’s out of bounds in this locker room. Any type of insecurity you have, whatever it is, they’re going to play on it. Anything goes.”
Against the backdrop, the Dolphins may have been the perfect storm: an especially sensitive young player; a veteran tormenter with a history of over-the-top behavior; a perennially losing team with a relatively new coaching staff; a roster that had undergone such heavy turnover there was no one to step in when things got out of hand.
There will surely be calls to cut back on — or even eliminate — some of the treatment that rookies have been subjected to for as long as there has been an NFL.
That, too, would be a mistake.
Most of the so-called hazing that goes on is all in good fun and perhaps does contribute to a sense of bonding that is so vital for the success of a team with a 53 disparate personalities.
With the Falcons, for instance, the rookies are expected to lug the shoulder pads of the veteran players back to the locker room after each practice during training camp
“It’s not really hazing,” White said. “It’s just a respect factor.”
Respect works both ways.
That’s the most important thing we can learn from this sordid affair.