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Simply the idea of going away to school was enough to create a modest case of anxiety for me as a college freshman.
So how did the small liberal arts college in Mt. Vernon, Iowa welcome me and others who might have been experiencing self-doubt and a few butterflies? For openers, we were required to carry the upperclassmen's bags up to their rooms. Some of us were issued onions to wear around our necks. If a junior or senior told us to get down on all fours and lift our leg against a tree - in an apparent attempt to impress one of the ladies on campus - we complied.
At the end of this traditional equal-opportunity hazing (there were no fraternities) week, we found ourselves in the pitch black confines of the indoor track in the basement of the fieldhouse. All of the freshmen "men" were lined up to receive a solid whack on the ass with one of those fraternity paddles.
Just before the fun began, the dean of students appeared, gathered us, and said, "Now if any of you don't want to do this, you can leave now."
No one so much as raised an eyebrow; we got smacked; and life went on.
This memory of more than 50 years ago was rekindled last week as I lay on the couch, trying to escape this cruelest of winters, reading the entire 148-page Wells Report about the vulgar, disrespectful and sorry behavior that occurred last season with the Miami Dolphins.
Reflecting on the report commissioned by the NFL, I thought back on my experience. It wasn't pleasant. I was uncomfortable. I felt alone. Yet I knew if I had walked out of that basement that night, I would regret it.
Feeling the same kind of pressure - but with far greater intensity for a much longer time with much scarier people - apparently kept Jonathan Martin on the Dolphins for a season-and-a-half, enduring the psychological punishment led by teammate Richie Incognito. Martin's parents knew about the abuse, but he never disclosed anything to his coaches, the Miami front office, or the NFL administration. And then last October 29, he abruptly left the team.
The report is less shocking than insightful. The language - including lewd sexual references to Martin's mother and sister - is what one might expect in this so-called culture which celebrates the zenith of American masculinity. But the depth of the abuse, its extremely personal nature, and its unrelenting frequency provide a picture of what these athletes consider acceptable.
Not all of Martin's teammates participated, but none of them did anything to stop it - much less his offensive line coach Jim Turner, who tolerated the bullying and even participated on occasion. Turner was in his first year in the NFL after coaching in the college ranks for almost 25 years. Once Martin left the team and Incognito was identified as the main perpetrator of the abuse, Turner sent texts to Martin calling for him to issue a statement defending Incognito. "DO THE RIGHT THING NOW," demanded Turner.
This guy's moral compass couldn't find true north if you pointed him toward the Arctic Circle. Needless to say, he was facing the loss of two of his five starting lineman, and that was his priority. When interviewed by investigators, he lied when he said that he couldn't remember events for which everyone else had a clear memory.
Why is it that so many of our coaches are clueless when it comes to the opportunity of guiding and mentoring younger people as they mature and develop?
Whether it's the Miami Dolphins, Penn State, or Maine West, too many of the men and women invested with the precious assignment of setting a positive example of decency fail our young people.
I'm not talking about the majority of coaches. Many of us have memories of playing for coaches who provided meaningful life lessons via sports. They take their responsibilities seriously, and they do an effective job.
Yet there are far too many instances when men like Turner show abysmal, damaging, immoral judgment. Once the Wells Report was made public, Turner was fired as he should have been. However, chances are he'll get another job elsewhere.
The report also reminded me of former major league pitcher Jim Bouton and his book Ball Four, which was published in 1970. It was one of the first sports books to chronicle everyday life in professional sports.
Bouton, who attended Bloom High School in Chicago Heights and won 21 games for the 1963 Yankees, became a pariah after the book was published. What went on in the clubhouse was meant to stay in the clubhouse.
Ball Four is pabulum compared to what we know today about what goes on in locker rooms and clubhouses. He described the needling, joking, drinking and drug use that players engaged in on a regular basis, but he also wrote that anyone with psychological problems couldn't be in a worse place than on a professional sports team. Weakness and vulnerability weren't likely to attract empathy.
That certainly was true in the case of Jonathan Martin. As a defense mechanism, he tried to be friends with Incognito. The Wells Report states, "Our consulting expert . . . explained that Martin's effort to befriend Incognito is consistent with the reaction of a person who is trapped in an abusive situation and that attempting to develop a close friendship with an abusive person is a common coping mechanism exhibited by victims of abusive relationships."
When Martin bolted and Incognito's name surfaced, teammates were puzzled because they thought the two were buddies even though they witnessed the abuse directed at Martin. What were they thinking?
The notion that Martin might be depressed never was raised by anyone in the Dolphins organization. He didn't fight back, never complained, and actually turned into an effective offensive lineman.
"[Consultant] Dr. Berman also confirmed that Martin's placing the blame on himself rather than on his abusive teammates is consistent with how a person in a depressive state thinks and behaves," the Report continues, illustrating that Bouton's point is well-taken.
While it's not clear whether other NFL teams have the same kind of locker room mentality as the Dolphins, it's doubtful that you'd find this kind of behavior occurring in baseball clubhouses. Of the 25-man roster, usually at least eight or 10 players are Latin American or Asian. A guy like Richie Incognito isn't smart enough to bridge the language barrier with his verbal garbage.
Racial and homophobic slurs wouldn't be tolerated in Latin and Asian cultures as they are in some segments of the American culture. Trying to get a reaction from the likes of Dayan Viciedo or Avasail Garcia by describing the sexual liberties you might take with their mothers or sisters likely would result in an extended respite on the DL.
Baseball is a kinder, gentler sport. Little guys can play. Finesse, speed and intelligence are as valued as physicality. Rookies aren't hazed. Have you seen new White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, all 6-foot-4, 250 pounds of him? He represents brightness and hope for our new Sox. Mistreat him? I think not.
In this age of heightened awareness of bullying and abuse, it appears that football is mired back in the time when I was shaking in my boots in that fieldhouse basement.
Take me out to the ballgame any day.
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Posted on Apr 24, 2017