Skip to main content

What you don't get about NFL bullying

By Jeff Pearlman
updated 10:29 AM EST, Tue February 18, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jeff Pearlman: NFL report on bullying among Dolphins horrified many but shouldn't
  • As a sportswriter, he says he often saw the immature behavior of players
  • He says the strong bully the weak, while racism and homophobia aren't uncommon
  • Pearlman: The culture of the locker room will remain unless sports chiefs change it

Editor's note: Jeff Pearlman blogs at jeffpearlman.com. His latest book, "Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s," comes out March 4. Follow him on Twitter @jeffpearlman.

(CNN) -- About a decade ago, while walking through the spring training clubhouse of the then-Florida Marlins, a third baseman summoned me toward his locker and -- pants down, while changing out of his uniform -- farted in my face.

I did not know the man.

He did not know me.

He simply thought, in some odd way, that farting into a stranger's face constituted good humor. And, amazingly, it did. Teammates laughed and laughed and laughed. Ultimately, a catcher I'd interviewed before walked up, tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Typical bull----."

Indeed.

The professional athlete who breaks wind in a man's face is not an anomaly. Neither is the athlete who -- as a joke -- sticks a pornographic film in the clubhouse TV's DVD player. Or the one who gives a teammate a wedgie. Or a purple nurple. Or tells racist jokes. Or sexist jokes. Or ... you name it. Really, name anything.

Jeff Pearlman
Jeff Pearlman

That's why, as the world -- in and out of sporting -- chatters over the 144-page report commissioned by the NFL to explore allegations of bullying within the Miami Dolphins, I can't help but sigh, shrug and accept the reality that -- even with Richie Incognito's warranted public flogging, even with Michael Sam's announcement of his homosexuality, even with continued societal enlightenment -- little will change.

As anyone who has spent time covering athletics will tell you, life in a male professional clubhouse is often akin to the worst fraternity on campus -- minus the rules, regulations and governing bodies. There is a caste system, but it has little to do with the most intelligent and mature rising to the top. Here, the skinny backup quarterback who attended, say, Harvard or Northwestern gains no points for his pedigree. The strong debater or the Tolstoy fan isn't considered a guide or guru.

No, this is the heartland of Richie Incognitos -- large, loud, oafish dunderheads who would be branded bullies elsewhere but are here leaders. As the NFL report detailed, Incognito and Co. appeared to take a sadistic pleasure in torturing Jonathan Martin, a teammate considered to be weak.

NFL names more bullies, victims in Miami
Sportscaster slams Michael Sam critics

Ted Wells, a defense lawyer who investigated the scandal and produced the report for the NFL, called it "a classic case of bullying, where persons who are in a position of power harass the less powerful" -- and truer words have rarely been written. Martin was mocked racially, mocked sexually, subjected to obscene jokes about his sister and mother. Another teammate, according to the report, was besieged with homophobic taunts and touched in a "mockingly suggestive manner."

This is awful.

This is not particularly surprising.

Truth be told, the world of professional team sports is about as open-minded as a corpse. Yes, blacks and whites and Hispanics and Asians come together to fight for a common goal. Winning. Once the final whistle or buzzer sounds (or the last out is recorded), the "Kumbaya" spirit evaporates, and everyone wanders off into their groups and corners. Many go about their lives. Some -- the meek -- cower. Others -- the Incognitos -- pounce. They do so for the simple reason that others before them have also done so -- no one dares stand in the way.

I vividly recall covering the San Francisco Giants when Barry Bonds was the team's star. He was (to be blunt) an awful man to others -- rude to teammates, dismissive to fans, crude to the media and indifferent to Giants employees. When a San Francisco front office executive or public relations official would tiptoe up to Bonds with a question or request, he would be unceremoniously rebuffed. He might technically have held the power, but Bonds was bigger, stronger, more famous, more important -- and his way became the way.

No matter what the so-called experts say on the morning talk shows (and Lord knows, it'd be helpful if some of them ever even stepped foot inside a locker room), that's how it goes in sports. Unless pro sports commissioners Roger Goodell, Bud Selig, Adam Silver and Gary Bettman make a concerted effort to begin enforcing better behavior in their sports' respective locker rooms, that's how it will always go in sports.

And the Richie Incognitos will continue to rule the terrain.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Pearlman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT