So I was reading through the Wells report on the Martin/Incognito affair, which reads like an updated version of the Stanford Prison Experiment, and there was one passage that stuck out for me:
Martin also asserted that he befriended Incognito, Jerry and Pouncey in an effort to reduce their abuse and that he sometimes participated in their vulgar banter in an effort to fit in. The evidence shows that Martin was distressed by his teammates' language, but attempted to hide his pain, believing that he was too sensitive and that the barbs would stop after his rookie year. We will never know whether a stronger reaction by Martin would have stopped his teammates' behavior or exacerbated it. But Martin told us that he did not view a physical response as a viable option.
That's a useful passage for anyone looking to debunk the whole, idiotic "Martin should have fought back" derpitude currently polluting Twitter and certain portions of sports talk radio. I have some experience with trying (and failing) to be accepted on a football team, and telling someone to "fight back" is essentially like telling a depressed person to stop being depressed.
Because you know what happens if you fight back? Well then, you've fed the troll. You've given the screaming child the attention it was looking for and permission for them to keep doing it. Or worse, you might LOSE. And then what? You go tell your position coach? Well, he might think you're a pussy. Oh, you want to tell the head coach? Son, the head coach is a very important man with many important things to do and there isn't enough time in his day to handle every player's problems. You're imposing on him the second you walk through that door. You don't need to ask anyone on a football team or have it written out for you to know this is the case. Imagine working at a huge company and going to the CEO's office to make a similar personal complaint. There is structure of authority in place to discourage you from EVER doing that. You are discouraged from looking needy or distracting or in need of a babysitter. That's all understood.
Confidence is such an odd, elusive quality in a man. Men who have it usually exploit it to maximum dickishness. And men who don't have it can spend years banging their heads against the wall to figure out how to get it. There is a perpetual disconnect between these two strains of men, which is why Incognito still probably doesn't understand how he did anything wrong. It's not my fault Jon's a pussy! I spent a lot of my youth trying to be friends with football players and other popular kids—confident kids—who didn't like me. I did this often while ignoring (to my deep regret) good friends I already had. I was a social climber. There's no doubt about it. I wanted better friends, and I was ready to turn my back on truer friends for it. And confidence is the reason why.
Football players are very large people. They are tall and wide and strong and thus they amplify their super macho behavior in correlation with their massive size. A football team is an arms race of masculinity. We had a dude on my college team named Tony who could squat 500 pounds. He would wrap his knees so they wouldn't fucking snap before he went to the rack and by the time he was ready to squat, all the other players would gather around him in awe. I would stand among them. Inside a locker room, you're vying for an alpha dog crown you're probably never going to win.
But, if you're anything like me, you're dumb enough to believe that you can. I couldn't squat that much. Not even close. But I thought... if I could. Shit, if I could do that, that would solve everything. The reason that many bullying or hazing victims are so attracted to their tormentors is because they operate under the delusion that if they can just win them over... if they can just get over that hump, AMAZING THINGS WILL HAPPEN. Money, sex, adoration, etc. Anyone who has had a terrible boss or a disapproving parent or an abusive lover knows this delusion all too well. Sometimes, you hate that person. Sometimes, you can't fucking wait to prove yourself to that person because those little moments where they deign to treat you equally are so sweet. You become obsessed. Winning them over becomes a perverse goal, almost always to your own personal detriment.
As a culture, we frown on giving up. It's just not an American thing to quit, or to back down. And in football, that sentiment runs even deeper. You never surrender. You find the strength to handle your problems on your own—either with brute force or with stoic silence. No matter how damning an indictment of locker room culture you think this report may be, I promise you that many football people will read the Wells report and still come away thinking Jonathan Martin is a pussy. Or worse, they'll privately damn him for committing the mortal sin of "taking it outside the house," the supposed sanctuary of an NFL locker room. (Imagine your workplace operating under the same unofficial credo. Bob threw a stapler at your head? KEEP IT IN HOUSE, GENTS.) But the reality is that a locker room is only a sanctuary for the confident, and daring to step outside the circle proves how much less of a man you are. Every option outside of just standing there and TAKING IT is cut off from you.
A few years ago, I was in a group email with some friends when I made a fat joke (hypocrite!) about one of my other friends. And then another guy in the chain was like, "Hey Drew! How about you not be a fucking dick? It's not funny." And of course I stepped back and realized he was exactly right. I never made a similar teasing comment again after that. But that's just a dopey email chain. This is the cum-laden wolfpuss-CRUSHING environment of an NFL locker room we're talking about. I don't know if this culture will change in the wake of this report. If it does, it will change slowly, while kicking and screaming. I just know that the way it will change is when someone in charge tells players that they will always have someone to talk to, and that that is okay to back down once in while... that there will always be a sanctuary away from the sanctuary.
Drew Magary writes for Deadspin and Gawker. He's also a correspondent for GQ. Follow him on Twitter @drewmagary and email him at email@example.com. You can also buy Drew's book, Someone Could Get Hurt, through his homepage.
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