Currently it's impossible to have a conversation about social ills and not bring up the issue of bullying. Previously, this conversation was limited to our schools but in recent years, it has expanded to include research on the means and objectives of bullying and the environments in which it takes place. In short, bullying happens everywhere. The story of Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin is the latest revelation of the troubling, acceptable rites of passage that shape young people.
Rites of passage are activities designed to test young men and prepare them for adult life. Historically, many cultures across this globe designed a series of steps that their young men had to undertake—and succeed at before they could be considered men. Failure lead to being shunned by everyone in the village or one would be driven out, assigned a place with other children, and never allowed to marry. You were considered less than a man and undeserving of any further responsibilities. As societies evolved, these rites of passages were no longer agreed upon or codified in a social context. Young men were left to figure this out for themselves. Military service, employment, athletics, sexual prowess, physical and material acquisitions and numerous other things were held out as examples of manhood. I chose athletics.
On a personal level, I understand, let me say—overstand, the culture of sports. Although no one in my family ever played professionally, five of us did secure NCAA Division One scholarships. The attention and recognition given to people who are stand out athletes is in my opinion unwarranted and symptomatic of our obsession with sports in America. To be sure, I love athletics and I'm guilty of being too emotionally involved with the teams I root for. What's really interesting is how I become verbally abusive at the television screen when players don't perform to my standards. Words like "loser," "buster, sit him down" effortlessly pour from my mouth, feeling justified in my wrath. As a former athlete, I heard all of these derogatory words slung directly at me and others by players, teammates, fans and coaches. I never thought anything of it and I learned how to deal with this. I questioned the physical toughness and mental fortitude of those who appeared to be weak or unqualified for high level competition. To this very day when I lose in competition, I feel inadequate. Unfortunately, it's an acquired belief.
The situations covered in the previous paragraphs bring us to a Stanford educated Black man who seemingly snapped under the pressure of trying to live up to the image of what is a tough athlete. Another level of incomprehension is the nature of the dysfunctional relationship between the mentor, Richard Incognito, and Martin, the mentee. Incognito's blatant and unapologetic use of the "N" word toward Martin, demonstrates a lack of personal respect and boundaries on Martin's part. I believe the rites of passage that brought Martin to this point are similar to gang initiations, cult indoctrination and other forms of mental abuse and boundary erosion techniques used to force someone to fit in. Once you belong, you must perpetuate the groupthink. Martin obviously had enough. Although some call his motives dubious, one thing is clear: he no longer wanted to participate.
There are many troubling things and details emerging from this story, but perhaps the most disturbing fact: is how Miami Dolphins players are circling the wagons. The good old boy system is in full effect. If Martin ever returns to football, he will encounter an even more difficult time fitting in.
In sum, I scratch my head to understand how the field of dreams has become a nightmare to so many athletes. As a black man, I reaped many benefits from excelling at sports. I also acquired some attitudes I later shed over the years. Penn State, Rutgers and the Miami Dolphins have taught us a great deal about the team: how to handle in-house mentality of high level sports culture. The lesson? It doesn't work.