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Barbara Bruno Headshot

Jonathan Martin and the NFL's Locker Room Culture: Bullying vs. Individual Responsibility

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Mike Ditka's comment last week on NFL Sunday NFL Countdown regarding the Miami Dolphins' bullying scandal was: "I wouldn't have either one of them: the bully or the baby." Unsurprisingly, we haven't heard many folks on ESPN asking Coach Ditka's opinion since that succinct statement. In fact, when every other member of the hosting panel spoke at length about the unacceptability of any type of bullying in the workplace, Ditka's one-sentence statement implied that (perhaps in pre-show meetings) he may have been asked to minimize the public expression of his old-school stand.

The "bullying" side of Ditka's remark requires a determination of exactly how much abuse is acceptable in an NFL setting. This is exactly what the NFL's investigation is seeking to conclude. One hopes. Football is a rough game and playing it at the highest level requires both physical and mental toughness. That toughness, in combination with awe-inspiring physical talents, is what fans admire about NFL players.

However, there is a difference between the mental toughness required to fight through bad weather/injuries or when a game appears lost and the toughness required to put up with personal abuse. Some people can listen to any and all insults, demeaning taunts or degrading statements and be unmoved. Some people can't. This is a question of personality -- not job fitness.

Demanding that all football players possess the intangible ability to be emotionally unaffected by abuse/hazing is to reinforce the stereotype that all players are brawn-powered, brain-challenged athletic machines. What bothers some is not even noticed by others. However, it should not be the bully who gets to decide what level of you-know-what is objectionable. If a person finds any behavior hurtful, it becomes unacceptable even if it wouldn't bother the perpetrator or another co-worker at all. Richie Incognito's "we all do it, so it's okay" argument is a flawed premise. And those defending the "you shouldn't let it get to you" school of thought are the same people who would take extreme umbrage were any other personality trait to be so criticized. Sensitivity and achievement are not mutually exclusive. Ask San Francisco TE Vernon Davis, who is an accomplished artist.

America reinforces the "crawl over your own mother" school of getting to the top. Ruthlessness is admired and compassion frequently vilified in the most competitive businesses. Bullying and demeaning actions and words are often disguised and excused as "paying your dues." When those actions prove hurtful, the defense is "this is a tough business, kid -- man up."

I worked my way up in the movie industry to become the person who runs the film set. Ninety-five percent of those holding that position are still men. Usually large, loud, white men. I'm a 5'2" blonde female and fit exactly nobody's vision of the set boss. I know what it's like to not fit the mold -- like, maybe, being a soft-spoken, intellectual offensive lineman. Taunting and sexism were at times a fact of my every day life. If I ever allowed the hurt caused by the verbal abuse to show, it was somehow my fault. I just wasn't "tough" enough. As if being immune to personally directed, outrageously hostile behavior is somehow an acceptable part of any 21st-Century job description.

Most jobs don't have dignity guidelines for how employees are treated. The common phrase for this is: "Being an (insert euphemism here) isn't against the law." As with most situations in America, the money and power positions share both privilege and protection from retaliation. If policies about workplace behavior don't begin at the top, with full public endorsement and enforcement from the top -- everyone is wasting their time.

We have to behave as if we actually believe that everyone is entitled to the same decent treatment and that everyone is expected to demonstrate the same level of civil behavior. In the film industry actors, producers and directors are almost always allowed to behave abominably and abusively without fear of any consequences whatsoever. This is not to say that all of them do this, only that it is generally permitted and accepted as a normal occurrence. To complain is not only pointless; it also endangers the reputation of the whistleblower -- not the abuser.

In sports, star athletes, coaches and owners enjoy the same double or triple-standard status. And it starts early, when high school coaches build their job security on the backs of talented young players. Collective blindness to the possible emotional toll on some players of this status quo exists on all levels, particularly at the big money college programs and in the pros.

Our society has made progress in the past 30 years in terms of making racial discrimination and sexual harassment unacceptable both culturally and legally. And a few large corporations have even been held accountable for creating "a hostile work environment." It appears that the NFL may soon be one of them.

This progress places a degree of responsibility on employees. After fighting sexism for a career and putting up with years of sexual harassment, I have no patience whatsoever with women who currently refuse to stand up to unacceptable behavior from their male colleagues. When a female co-worker complains in my presence about some man's advances, my response is an exasperated, "Well, tell him to stop!" Don't whine about it when too many women fought too hard so that legal protections now exist. Stand up for yourself, take responsibility for your own dignity and say "no."

Sometimes, an abusive environment can become too much to bear and no one outside of one's own psyche can determine that point. However, nothing becomes unbearable instantly -- it takes time to reach the stage where one must leave the situation in order to protect one's mental health. Until that point is reached we all have a responsibility to our employers and colleagues. They depend on us to do a job, to be there working beside them, to do our part.

No one wants to be labeled a quitter and I stayed in multiple abusive situations while building my film career. I put up with whatever it was and just tried to handle the stress. I "manned up." The business demanded toughness and I rose to the occasion. And it worked. At least professionally. How well it worked personally is another matter and another article.

Once, however, I saw the line of "unbearability" looming. I called my executive producer and told him that we might be approaching the "life is too short for this" point. I gave him the option of replacing me or understanding when/if I had to walk out one day. I did the same thing with my staff. Those were extremely uncomfortable conversations, but I could not imagine simply disappearing and leaving them holding the bag without at least a warning. Ultimately, I did not have to leave -- the season ended and we all moved on.

So, I understand when Mike Ditka refers to Martin as a "baby." No matter the level of bullying or abuse in the Miami Dolphins' organization -- don't quit unless everything else has been tried. That's our side of the street as employees and co-workers and teammates. That's where we exhibit enough strength of character to take our professional responsibilities seriously and try to live up to our employment agreement. We say something, regardless of our fear of retaliation. Too many labor movement activists bled for us to not at least try.

Perhaps Jonathan Martin did go to team management and was ignored. If he did, the NFL and the Dolphins have an even bigger problem. When Jonathan Martin missed a few days of off-season training and was treated for depression, did management talk with him to determine if his day-to-day working experience had any bearing on his mental health? It wouldn't be shocking if the answer were "no." Depression is not a two-day disorder and it is not credible that any member of management or the coaching staff would think it was.

While we're discussing being a "baby," let's also consider those 51 teammates and numerous coaches and staff members that apparently didn't have the character to resist following Incognito's lead. Given this player's well-known reputation, it's perplexing that this is the man an entire roster chose to follow. Or were they simply too afraid of him to object or even communicate his behavior to management? Was his bullying leadership style so commonplace in football that 51 players didn't notice? Or were they not "tough" enough to take a stand?

Perhaps the Jonathan Martin scandal will force the NFL to join the ranks of those companies that make dignity and decent treatment for all employees a formal policy. Perhaps this will be the tipping point that allows players to be their authentic selves without fear of peer censorship or belittlement.

Perhaps the scandal will lead to a revision of locker room culture and coaching methods so that allowing a diversity of personalities can be more widely shown to achieve the same winning results as worship of the fanatically macho myth. And perhaps workers will summon the courage to speak up -- for themselves and others.

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