As details continue to emerge surrounding the apparent bullying and harassment of Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin by teammate Richie Incognito, one thing this doesn't seem to be about is sexual orientation. In all the reporting about the threatening texts and voicemails sent to Martin, allegedly by Incognito, there is no use of gay slurs.
I bring this up because over the past week, as this story grew, I heard from a half-dozen friends who thought I had some insight in the Martin story. They all wondered if Martin was gay and this was the reason for him being bullied. I admit this thought had occurred to me, even though I knew nothing about Martin other than he was a second-round draft pick out of Stanford. He did attend the same high school -- Harvard Westlake in Los Angeles -- as Jason Collins, but that is just a coincidence.
Martin has taken a leave from the Dolphins and the team has suspended Incognito (he's likely done in Miami) after these texts and voicemails were reported by ESPN:
Richie Incognito left this VM for Jonathan Martin in April 2013: "Hey, wassup, you half n----- piece of (expletive)...
"I saw you on Twitter, you been training ten weeks. (I want to) (expletive) in your (expl) mouth....
"(I'm going to) slap your (expletive) mouth. (I'm going to) slap your real mother across the face (laughter).
Incognito to Martin, all on same VM in April 2013: "(Expletive) you, you're still a rookie. I'll kill you."
These are appalling and racist and it's easy to see why Martin felt threatened enough to report them. What they aren't is homophobic and that's noteworthy because bullying has become so closely tied to LGBT people. It's understandable why -- nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT youths say they have been verbally harassed by their orientation. There also have been way too many tragic stories of bullied LGBT youth killing themselves. And bullying is not confined to high school. Adults can be bullied too, so when the Martin story first broke, it was understandable that people wondered whether there was a gay angle.
If there is a connection to be made with this incident and gay issues, it is the idea of someone not fitting in because they are "different." Martin's nickname on the Dolphins was "Big Weirdo," for reasons not entirely clear. It seems like he never fit in with the team's culture (which included veterans shaking down rookies for expensive meals and trips). Martin is a "classics major who attended Stanford and is the son of two Harvard graduates, the New York Times reports.
In contrast, Incognito has long been a troublemaker, going back to his days at Nebraska. From the New York Times:
Incognito revealed glimpses of his locker room behavior on Twitter. In April, he posted a photograph of Martin squeezing into a go-kart. "Big weirdo barely fits in the go kart," Incognito wrote.
At question is whether Incognito wandered past the loose parameters of locker-room decorum. But current and former players did not seem surprised that Incognito, 30, would be at the center of this type of incident. Throughout his collegiate and professional career, Incognito has had an image as an energetic player who will do anything to win, even if he has to cross the line into dirty play.
A New Jersey native, Incognito excelled at the University of Nebraska, but in 2004, he was suspended because of incidents off the field. That did not deter the St. Louis Rams from drafting him in the third round the next year.
He built a résumé that included games with multiple personal fouls and a $50,000 fine for head-butting. He was also fined for three incidents in one game, including verbally abusing a game official.
Add in this video of Incognito ranting and using the n-word and it's easy to see how someone like Martin would be a ready target. Martin's high school coach, Vic Eumont, says he is not surprised, telling the Palm Beach Post:
"Bullies usually go after people like him," Eumont said. ... "Before he wasn't around Nebraska, LSU kind of guys. He's always been around Stanford, Duke, Rice kind of players."
"He always wanted to make everybody happy and make friends and not be a problem. All of his teachers loved him. All of his teammates loved him. His nickname was Moose and he was happy to have that. He was always ‘yes or no sir,' do whatever you ask him to do. I can see where somebody that's a bully will take advantage of him, and rather than him say anything would just hold it inside.
"I can see where if somebody was bullying him he would take that to heart, and be concerned and think it was his fault."
In addition, there is the culture of an NFL locker room, where being "soft" and "different" are bad things. If Martin was a real man, he would have brawled with Incognito, the thinking goes. Sports Illustrated's Jim Trotter has an eye-opening article quoting league personnel men (not players, management) calling Martin "weak" and a "coward" for reporting the bullying instead of handling it himself. Trotter's conclusion?:
Incognito is a despicable human being if he's guilty of what's been alleged, but in the NFL teams will put up with drug dealers, dog fighters, drunk drivers who kill someone and racists if they can help them win games. Said one personnel man: "Incognito is an A-Hole, however I'm pretty sure you would want him beside you if you are in a bar fight. Tough as nails."
Which brings us back to the gay issue. Any openly gay player will, by the very nature of being out, be "different" from his teammates. He could face the same pressures that Martin did for that reason, and would be expected to fight back lest he be called soft and weak. However, there are huge caveats to keep in mind before assuming that what Martin faced is what a gay player would face. So much would depend on the player's personality and his relationship with his teammates, coaches and management. A well-liked player who fits in as one of the guys -- despite being gay -- could make his sexual orientation a non-issue quickly.
Let's not use the Martin case to make a sweeping statement about how a gay player would be treated. What happened to him is bad enough and is a reminder that bullying can happen to anyone, regardless of their status or sexual orientation.