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