Jonathan Martin: The Damaged Psyche of the Bullied Athlete

Bullying behavior might be more pervasive in professional sports than in the general population, because athletes are conditioned early on to learn that a legion of admirers will coddle them and cater to their needs.
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Jonathan Martin's depression and suicidal ideation are believed to be related to the relentless bullying by Richie Incognito and other Miami Dolphins teammates including John Jerry and Mike Pouncey.

At the very least the ongoing bullying tirade and his difficulty in responding to it had a substantial effect on Martin's self image. His email message to his parents in April 2013 reveal how abused he felt by the other players, and how self-condemning he was for his reluctance or inability to stand up to his teammates. He wrote, "I let people say anything to my face and I just take it, laugh it off, even when I know they are intentionally trying to disrespect me." In allowing disparaging remarks about his sister and mother to go unchallenged he compromised his value system, and in effect his self-respect was incrementally eroded and transformed into self-loathing. In a sense being bullied can be doubly assaultive to one's self-esteem. On the one hand, you feel beaten down by the cruelty of others, and, in addition, you may develop deeply embedded feelings of shame for not asserting yourself effectively. Such layers of taunting which become internalized and self-scorn can create longstanding scars, especially to a fragile psyche, as Jonathan Martin's was purported to be.

Bullying behavior might be more pervasive in professional sports than in the general population, because athletes are conditioned early on, from the time that they hit that first home run in little league or throw that first touchdown pass in Pop Warner football, (usually around age eight), to learn that a legion of admirers will coddle them and cater to their needs; which short circuits their emotional development, particularly with regard to sensitivity to the feelings of others. As a result many fail to develop an empathy chip and become stuck in an adolescent mentality. The hallmark of the male adolescent mentality embraces such features as macho behavior, engaging in pranks and the mocking of others. When empathy is absent, aggression and insensitivity to others frequently prevail, and this defines the culture in which Jonathan Martin existed.

The NFL-sponsored investigation culminating in the Wells report indicated that more than 1000 derogatory text messages were exchanged between Incognito and Martin, so it is apparent that Martin also participated in the harassment game. The difference seems to be that for Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey, the vicious insults merely rolled off their back, while for Martin they got under his skin and festered with accumulation. A central dynamic in adolescence is the wish to be accepted by one's peer group. Interactive harassment seems to have been the normative behavior in the Dolphins community, and it is likely that Jonathan Martin allowed himself to be a self proclaimed "pushover, a people pleaser" in order gain acceptance by the group. Under such conditions standards of morality often become blurred, and Martin may have felt that if he didn't go along with the culture of harassment; he would be perceived as weak and unworthy of belonging to "the club." Confiding to coach Joe Philbin about the extreme nature of verbal abuse was not an available option for Martin, because he would have been labeled as a snitch in the "boys will be boys" culture. Struggling with depression can be debilitating to athletic performance, and repeated taunting serves to exacerbate the condition, so it is understandable that Martin felt that his only viable route was to leave the team.

To a certain extent this type of bullying probably occurs within many sports teams. While the Wells report suggests that coach Philbin bears no responsibility for fostering this egregious behavior among his players, an important takeaway from this episode is that the coaching staff needs to be more vigilant in picking up cues of bullying behavior. Furthermore, the leadership within the team is crucial in preventing bullying among teammates. It is hard to imagine, for example that Derek Jeter or David Wright, as the respective captain of the Yankees and the Mets, would tolerate a bullying culture among their players. Most of all it is the leaders of the team who model appropriate and acceptable pathways for relating and communicating. It speaks volumes about the NFL locker room culture that Richie Incognito and Mike Pouncey were voted in by their teammates to be members of their leadership council. Shame on the Dolphins!

Stanley H. Teitelbaum, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst and co-director of Time Out for Respect in Sports, and the author of Athletes Who Indulge Their Dark Side and Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols.

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