(Note: I feel obligated to point out that this article is not directed to turfshowtimes or SB Nation in general. I don't know where any of you stand on this issue. I'm speaking to society and sports fandom as a whole.)
As those of you who have been around TST for awhile know, I usually like to write about the draft on here. I have things to say about other issues, but my fanposts usually fall in that realm because it's my area of greatest relative expertise. I, like the rest of you, also prefer when the fanpost section is kept to Ram-specific issues, but with the hope of your forgiveness, I'm going to step aside for just a minute to put something out there about what has been one of football's biggest, most sensational, and darkest stories of the past year: the Dolphins locker room fiasco.
I shouldn't have to explain the situation to any of you; the story has been everywhere and I'm sure you all know about it, and if you don't, a quick google search will remedy that situation. Today, the independent investigation by Ted Wells wrapped up. I'm not here to report what the details were or look into the background information of the report or anything like that, because much better writers than me have already done that. What I want to do is give you a different take on the issue, and particularly about the discourse surrounding it.
Too many people want to make this disaster something that it isn't. It isn't merely an issue of man-to-man abuse, it even goes beyond bullying. Jonathan Martin seems like somebody obviously with a mental state most people don't seem to understand. I'm not a doctor so I can't diagnose him with depression, but either that or something similar seems to be the case here. I think what the public conversation about the fiasco has been shines an upsettingly bright light on America's lack of understanding for mental health problems as well as sports culture's disturbing obsession with no-holds-barred macho attitude.
Before I go any farther, I should point out why I can write from a place of experience about this. Since I was almost fifteen, I've struggled with depression off and on. It's not something I talk about much because not only do I not like to admit it due to the stigma that surrounds it, but because in the intervals where it doesn't affect me as much I worry that thinking about it will somehow bring it back. It goes in and out, brought on more strongly in times if high stress, which believe it or not is a frustrating way to live. Something I talk about even less is that when I was a freshman in high school, I almost committed suicide. My brother wound up saving me from it, something he doesn't even know. All he did was come to my door to tell me something completely unrelated which snapped me out of it. Since then, I've largely been able to fight off these feelings.
I never was bullied as badly as many others, just in a brief period when I was twelve by guys who wound up becoming good friends with me. My depression was brought on naturally, as is the case with most others who deal with it. When I played football in high school, my locker room wasn't a huge problem. A few of the upperclassmen were jerks, but since my brother was close with them they never really overstepped their boundaries. Honestly, my bigger problems were with some of the underling coaches who would pick on me in non-productive ways and would in a couple cases tell me to my face that I'll never play for them because they didn't like how I look. When I told my dad, who is on the school board, he naturally brought it up at meetings, and when those coaches got their nice little slaps on the wrist, they held it against me as long as they were there. Now, to avoid sounding bitter, I'll step back from that. I can't imagine being in a locker room where my teammates abused me and threatened me verbally. My locker room certainly had bad leadership on the part of those coaches, but we never treated any peer like that.
Where I'm going with this is that, as someone who has dealt with depression, I find it really upsetting the way many have interpreted Jonathan Martin's choice to step away from his team. Many of you know I'm a reader of walterfootball.com for football coverage. However, when Walter released his annual awards, I was disappointed when he named Martin the league's "least valuable" or something to that effect, saying that while he won't defend Richie Incognito, he says nobody is as "pathetic" as Martin because he's a "300 pound man who can't defend himself." I won't pick on Walter, whom I've talked to online before and personally like, because he's merely one of the flood of voices with that exact sentiment. This idea shows the way so many people don't understand what being depressed is like.
Most seem to envision depressed people into two archetypes: the one that's so sad and miserable that they can't get out of bed, and the one who keeps quietly to himself/herself and takes the abuse until one day they snap and shoot everybody. The fact is, these archetypes are the vast majority of the time so wrong it's somewhat offensive. The truth of the matter is that depression isn't about crying yourself to sleep or sitting in the back of a classroom thinking about how to take your anger out on the ones who screw with you. These things are very rarely even part of it. While "unhappiness," in a sense, is the root of the emotions involved, misery typically isn't where it tends to be. It's more so about not liking what's out there waiting for you in the world and wanting to find a way to avoid it or to get away. It's a complex problem, but the best way to describe it is that you're fighting a war with your everyday life.
This brings us to the clueless argument that if the bullying was really that bad, Martin should have just stood up to him in the locker room and thrown hands, man-to-man, in front of everyone. That's not how being depressed works. Some with depression do develop an anger trigger, but many of us just at the end of the day want to withdraw to a place where the things we stress about are out of sight and out of mind. The idea of actually walking up to the people we stress about and punching them is completely unattractive. We don't want to make a big deal out of things, we just want to get away. And that's what Martin did. Thankfully he chose to get away by stepping out of his bad situation literally instead of doing what so many young men and women do by stepping out of life entirely.
People don't get it, plain and simple. It's easy for washed-up former athletes fortunate enough to be in a mental state where they don't lose sleep at night because they stress about every little thing so they can sit behind a desk on ESPN and say Martin isn't a man for being in a mental state where he wanted to just get out. I guarantee none of them have ever felt that feeling. They don't know what it's like. The macho culture around sports, particularly professional football, has reached a dangerous tipping point. The obsession with this 1950's gender view of manliness has reached the place where we have gone from teammates simply razzing each other to saying that we have to just be alright with teammates using racial slurs, homophobic remarks, and threats of death and violence to each other because that's just "boys being boys." To be nice about it, that's a complete load of crap. For one thing, it's not necessary. My friends and I give each other hell all the time, and we'll say stuff to each other we wouldn't say to non-friends, but have never, ever gone that far. There's no way you can tell me that fifty-plus grown men can't be close enough to trust each other without being bigoted and threatening to kill each other. There was a great SBN article by David Roth earlier in the wake of the scandal that made the perfect observation that we view NFL players as this dichotomy of simple, blue collar everymen and demigods who are the pinnacle of what men should be. It should not be surprising, then, that rotten spirits like Incognito are entitled enough to behave unacceptably to peers and that we get apologism for it from the media and from real everymen. Is Jonathan Martin really less of a man because he didn't clock Incognito? Am I less than a man because I didn't attack my coaches when they treated me like they did? The tons of young men every year who commit suicide because they don't see any other way out: are they not real men because they didn't want to take their aggression out on their problems and instead directed it on themselves?
More than that, this apologism is dangerous, and we're seeing why. Pro athletes in 2014 absolutely HAVE to realize that there are other people in the locker room different than them. I don't think it should be outlawed to razz friends and teammates to some degree. I'd be a hypocrite if I did. The Rams' "smack-cam" fad where the pied each other won't often hurt each other, aside from the occasional sting from shaving cream in the eyes. That being said, this extreme scenario we got (which I've thankfully heard from some sources is much worse than the NFL norm) is something we all have to agree is unacceptable. Furthermore, we need to go back to the lessons we were taught as kids about learning to walk a mile in somebody else's shoes before we cast our judgment. Clearly, many have missed this point about Jonathan Martin, largely because depression is so massively misunderstood. However, I've been there, I can walk that mile, and I'll be completely honest when I say that calling Martin "pathetic" and insinuating that he isn't man because his mental state doesn't conform to the macho culture's pre-conceived notion of what a real man is is very hurtful and only makes us feel worse about our situations. In fact, making this ideal a part of society is vastly harmful to those already depressed because it teaches the ideal that acts of violence are the ways out, and as I mentioned, most depressed people try to keep things internal, so it's not hard to figure out what direction they'll turn that violence to instead.
I guess all I'm saying is, let's not become obsessed with clueless ideals about what the lives and minds of Martin, myself, and other people in similar situations are like. Richie Incognito is a villain, it's an insult to our own collective intelligence to make him out to be a victim of anything. Don't become so consumed with this notion of what's "hard" or "soft" (oddly phallic, no?) that you forget about just and unjust. It doesn't make you not a man if you deal with depression. It doesn't make you not a man if you don't want to duke it out with somebody who messes with you. It doesn't make you not a man if you feel uncomfortable being in a place surrounded by threats of violence and bigotry. Ultimately, the only thing that makes you a man is whether or not you have a penis. Instead of focusing on being men, we should focus on being good men. What makes someone a good man is entirely subjective, but in my eyes, things like being a bigot, kicking someone when they're clearly down, being so obsessed with being an alpha dog that you nearly drive someone over an edge that they can't re-climb, and casting judgment on an entire population of people without even trying to understand where they come from are characteristics that don't make a good man.
This article was very hard for me to write. I'm putting some things out there that I usually don't, and it legitimately did take some pushing to type those words. I don't want pity, I'm not out for personal attention. My goal here is to enlighten and educate. It turned out way longer than I intended, and I apologize that it's so off-topic for turfshowtimes, but it's something I needed to get off my chest and I know this is a community of mostly good people who care enough to listen. Thanks for reading, feel free to comment and discuss.