Drawing the line

 I've been trying to get my thoughts in order concerning the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal. I'm not sure I've achieved that yet, but here goes.

I suppose starting with what makes this newsworthy, or at least news, would be helpful. There's the racial angle, which came into play when Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito left a voicemail for teammate Jonathan Martin calling him a "half-n*****" and threatening to both slap his mother and to kill him. 

There's the fact that apparently, according to reports in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, the voice mail may have stemmed from requests from coaches that Incognito help "toughen up" Martin, who missed two days of the team's Organized Team Activities (OTAs) in the offseason. 

There's the word "bullying," which has become sort of a hot-button touchstone in recent weeks and months, with issues both serious (a 12-year-old Florida girl jumping to her death after being repeatedly harassed) and borderline silly (a parent filing a bullying complaint after one Texas football team beat another 91-0). 

There's the whole machismo culture of the NFL and sports in general, where emotion equates to weakness (except, of course, if you're holding the confetti-spackled Lombardi Trophy) and real men suck it up and get on with it - and, in some cases, berate others who don't follow suit.

There's the Dolphins' response to the brouhaha on Wednesday, which included leaping to Incognito's defense while slamming Martin and the media. Some even went so far as to suggest that Incognito's racial slurs were not a big deal, but rather a team-building thing that us poor, ignorant, outside-the-locker-room suckers with our noses pressed longingly against the glass couldn't possibly understand. (To that I say, bullshit.)  

There's the third-grade, violence-condoning method the Dolphins' GM  reportedly suggested Martin use to deal with the matter: by punching Incognito. (I've had some HR issues in past jobs where part of me wishes this had been my superior's response, but seriously? How old are we here? A player musters the courage to speak out about his mistreatment at the hands of - I'll just say it - the team bully, and he's told to solve the problem by punching him? I'll tell my daughter that next time she's bothered by something at school and see where that gets both of us.)

There's the fact that this is not Incognito's first use of a racial slur - as this video  (watch at your own risk) shows - or his first brush with over-the-top behavior. During his college days at Nebraska, Incognito was convicted of misdemeanor assault, was suspended from the team at least twice and allegedly spat at opponents in the 2003 Alamo Bowl before transferring to Oregon. He didn't participate in one practice before being given the boot by the Ducks.

His behavior continued in the NFL, when, in 2009 - the same year he was voted the league's dirtiest player in a survey by The Sporting News - he head-butted two opponents as part of the 38 penalties he committed with the St. Louis Rams in four seasons. Claimed but quickly let go by Buffalo, he landed in Miami, where his voice mail and other alleged treatment of Martin has made the Dolphins the subject of an NFL investigation.

Those are the facts. These are some of my still-jumbled thoughts: 

Rookie hazing - some of which is no doubt part of Martin's contention that the Dolphins created an unsafe working environment - is a part of life in the NFL. It's been around for decades. Rookies get silly haircuts administered by team "barbers," schlep veterans' luggage and are sometimes tied to goal posts. For the most part, it's harmless, and promotes team bonding.

Demanding $15,000 for a trip to Las Vegas (which Martin did not go on) is not bonding. Threatening to harm a person or his family is not bonding. Calling a biracial person a half-nigger is not bonding.

If you don't just love sports (specifically football) but understand it, even in a rudimentary fashion, you know that it's a culture, and that culture is often insular and sometimes ugly, from entitled attitudes instilled and nurtured by a hero-worshiping mentality to views about women (who have been, at some big-time programs, offered up to recruits as 'escorts,' platonic or otherwise). 

But most athletes (with notable exceptions) seem to emerge from this testosterone-soaked proving ground with their humanity intact. Some, like the middle school players in this Upworthy video, even elevate the standard of what it is to be human.

At the same time, I agree (mostly) with people such as this blogger, who caution that we are in danger of raising a nation of soft-at-the-center children who expect the world to be nice to them and get righteously outraged when it's not. I remember watching a news report, years ago, about a soccer team whose coach refused to make cuts, fielding a team of around 50 players, and thinking sarcastically, There's a life lesson for you. 

But strong doesn't mean abusive. Understanding that life isn't fair doesn't mean being a perpetrator of injustice. 

I was bullied in junior high, by various people for various reasons in various ways. Gangs of girls accosted me in the hallway to call me names. Lone, tall, pretty, popular girls lurked around corners to sneer at me that I thought I'd make the basketball team because my daddy was a coach (I actually thought I'd make it because I practiced for hours upon hours with my big brother, faithfully copying his free-throw form and juking his friends with my 3-point fake).   

My stomach hurt, so often that I'd turn it into an illness to get to go to my granny's house, until my father told me that had to stop. I searched for sanctuary wherever I could find it, spending the interminable 20 minutes after I'd eaten lunch in deserted places, ducking my tormentors and the teachers who'd tell me to move along.  

It was awful, but it was time- and age-specific, and it ended. I had some college classes with one of the repeat offenders, and she was, away from that environment and in a much larger world, a normal person. We didn't hang out in our dorm rooms or anything, but she wasn't a monster. 

Some of the other people, who found joy in causing others - isolated, lonely, relatively helpless others - pain, may have been monsters. Or they may have been isolated and lonely and relatively helpless, overwhelmed by the changes being thrown at them and clueless how to cope.

The point is, I survived, and some aspects of my personality that I'm rather fond of were forged in that fire. I don't think anything criminally wrong was done to me. In short, I got over it. 

But that was my case, and my experience. I don't know about Rebecca Sedwick's case, or Jonathan Martin's case, or their experiences. 

Richie Incognito may be a monster, or he may be insecure and uncertain and too afraid to dig into the layers of what makes him behave this way to attempt to change. 

But there is a line, and that line is humanity. It's innate, inborn, a voice in your head and a stab in your heart that you either have, have and choose to ignore, or lack altogether. 

I don't know which category Incognito falls into, but I do know he's a grown man, and he needs to start behaving like one.

There are some middle-schoolers in Michigan who can show him how.