Has Bullying Been Normalized in Sports?

This week, Richie Incognito, a Miami Dolphins NFL player, was suspended indefinitely for bullying his teammate, Jonathon Martin.

We need to ask ourselves why the cries of Jonathon Martin took so long to hear. Where were his teammates, coaches, and the rest of people in the Dolphins organization? While the players have a code of conduct to which they have to adhere, why did it take the actions of Jonathon Martin feeling like he had to quit before someone heard him.

When you listen to players' comments, they seem to go both ways, in defense of the behavior or complete shock from the organization. Yet, despite the fact that the Dolphins coaching staff and club infrastructure is in place with the entire NFL above them, apparently, it was not safe for Jonathon Martin to speak up and have the situation resolved before it got to the point of needing to quit.

Has bullying become so normalized that we can't see the forest thru the trees? If we think that this is an isolated incident, and only related to Richie Incognito and the Miami Dolphins, then we are blind to what is really going on in sport. At every level of sports there is bullying and it exists in a sport culture where teammates do not report abuse for fear of being chastised by coaches and fellow players.

The focus of Safe4Athletes is to give every athlete a voice, including Jonathon Martin. Jonathon should be able to practice and play his sport with the freedom and liberty that is afforded workers in the workplace.

While the Safe4Athletes policies and procedures have been implemented at the open amateur and school/college levels of sports to address abuse, bullying, and harassment, we now see the need for such policies at the professional level for adult men and women to have a safe and positive experience while remaining competitive?

At every level of competition, including the NFL and other professional sports, there needs to be an identified safe place where athletes experiencing abuse, bullying, and harassment can go without fear of retribution from teammates, coaches, or management. The Safe4Athletes model requires the designation of an "athlete welfare advocate" (or team of athlete welfare advocates) to address athletes' safety needs. This advocate is necessary because of the huge power differential between athletes and coaches, owners, and managers. Even in the pros, athletes are "low men on the totem pole".

The athlete welfare advocate, coupled with an investigation that is activated when these issues arise, allows the sports club to hear their athletes and give them a voice through a third party that can protect them from retaliation.

We need to teach our athletes how to speak up and we need to listen to our athletes when they do have the courage to speak up.

We need to pull our heads out of the sand and hear ALL our ATHLETES from Pop Warner to the NFL. We need to make room for our athletes to speak out and we all need to be better listeners. We all need to realize that listening is not always with our ears. We have to observe players' behaviors, challenge hostile and bullying actions and read the feelings of distressed athletes. We must be more diligent at each of our sports programs.

Let's all hear and help every Jonathon Martin that is being bullied out there.

To learn more about adopting Safe4Athletes in your sports club and giving every athlete a voice, please visit our website www.safe4athletes.org.