Bruce Bowen on Richie Incognito and the culture of bullying


With recent events in the NFL, media are questioning the actions of Miami Dolphins player Richie Incognito, as well as the culture in sports. Bruce Bowen and Sean Adams assist in understanding this potential bullying issue in sports.

Bullying is a practice that has long been a feature of our society, from newer forms like cyberbullying to old bugaboos like playground intimidation. Campaigns and organizations have emerged to combat this emotionally charged issue of demeaning behavior, but it appears to be getting worse. The recent events in Miami, FL, involving interactions between the Dolphins' Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin turned the spotlight on bullying from the education system to the football field.

When the text messages and voice mails between the two players were first released, the media created an extremely negative image of Incognito, causing public opinion to dash quickly to frame him as a racist bully --understandably so, as these intercepted communications appeared to be derogatory and demeaning to Martin. Media outlets drilled the issue, interviewing anyone they could about the two players and the supposed "culture of the NFL," even getting University of the Incarnate Word assistant coach and former Dolphins player Ricky Williams to chime in on the issue:

If you look at the culture of football […] and put it under the microscope with social media and media coverage right now, we would probably put [Vince Lombardi] in the category of being a bully based on how he coached. And if you took the criteria for bullying and followed any team closely, I’d say 35 to 50% of coaches would lose their job. It's a different environment, a different way we function and do things.

Sean Adams, radio host of "The Horn" on ESPN Austin, adds his thoughts on the question of the culture:

No, it is not a sports culture issue. It is a societal issue. Bullying and intimidation happen in every part of America and has been part of every part of history be it slavery to suffrage. It happens a lot, the language and the race made this one public along with the fact that the player left the team.

Media coverage of Incognito spread like wildfire, including his alleged history of bullying, extracted from interviews with his high school and college teammates and friends. It painted a picture of a white football player who is a "troublemaker' with a "bad reputation", recalling that Incognito was nominated in 2009 as the NFL’s "Dirtiest Player." A public opinion was formed immediately, and Incognito was labeled by our society.

Very soon another aspect of the story was introduced, one reporting that Miami Dolphins coaches allegedly asked Incognito to "toughen up" Martin and get him "into the fold." Wait, so the text messages and the voice mails were part of the team leaders' plan, originating higher up in the management hierarchy and enabling Incognito's behavior???

Apparently, yes.

If this exact situation were to take place anywhere else, be it a high school, doctor’s office, or Fortune 500 company, the repercussions would be severe. The football field is a workplace, a professional sports team is an organization, and the players are the workers. A CEO telling managers to "toughen up" the new hires or potential managers is unheard of in the "normal" workplace.

Players and coaches of other NFL teams have spoken out about this issue, immediately dismissing the idea that it happens everywhere and "hazing" is a normal aspect of professional sports.

So is this truly an issue of sport culture, or is it just ignorance?

I spoke with San Antonio Spurs legend Bruce Bowen about the culture of sports and how our society has reacted to the actions of Incognito and Miami Dolphins staff:

Has the issue been blown out of control?

I don't think it's been blown out of control. You have a player that has basically walked away from a job. How desperate does a player have to be before we recognize the psychological damage that's been done?

Is there legitimate concern for the culture of sports from this?

We live in a PC time now. There's been some good progress with how we feel about sexual preferences, etc., but now to have to deal with a form of bullying and that doesn't bode well for a league that has been under scrutiny for the handling of so many situations.

Does this happen more often than we think?

I don't think it's something that happens a lot. But all it takes is one time before we realize the damage that's taken place. There's many ways to motivate a player; by example and from your leader is the best!

Is "hazing" a natural part of professional sports?

No. There are the fun things like making a guy get coffee and donuts. But if he says no, then that's it. He better play well from that point on to show he belongs. It's his right - he just has to find a better way to interact with his teammates from that point on.

What will this do to sports now?

Bring awareness to how players communicate with one another now. Kind of like having a HR person around at all times.

*   *   *

There is absolutely no ground or excuse for the language used by Incognito, whether it was suggested by higher management or not. Our society cannot accept such behavior as "part of the culture," as it causes disruption in the dynamics of the teams, fans, and the league. We are important parts of the sports puzzle and our opinions on athletes can make or break the success of teams.

The extent of the media's focus on the situation allows for discussions on bullying and hazing in organizations and institutions that are important elements of our society. "I like the fact that the story got public," Adams commented, "because it allows a teachable moment and for serious and needed conversations to be held between players, coaches and families. Open the conversations and hopefully prevent some high school kid or college kid from dealing with this mess going forward."

The focus needs to be in the right place, and it is not notoriety and importance. If this is the culture of sports, then our sports are going down the drain.

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