Today’s Teachable Moment: Even the Strong are Bullied

Incognito, left, and Martin during a Dolphins practice in July. (Credit: Lynne Sladky/AP Images) Incognito, left, and Martin during a Dolphins practice in July. (Credit: Lynne Sladky/AP Images)

Until last Monday, Jonathan Martin was an offensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins, which essentially means the 6’4” and 312-pound Stanford grad took physical hits for a living. But when he upped and quit the team due to bullying—a move that meant temporarily sacrificing his lifelong dream of playing in the NFL and giving up a roughly $38,000-a-game salary—he sent a powerful message to young sports fans everywhere: Even the big guys get bullied, and standing up against those emotional blows does not make you any less tough.

Let’s back up for a second, in case you haven’t been following the drama emerging out of the Miami Dolphins locker room. On Sunday, the team suspended another player, 30-year-old Richie Incognito, for his ring-leading role in tormenting Martin over the past two seasons—a murky mix of “traditional” hazing rituals extended to all rookies, targeted digs on a daily basis, and outright personal threats to Martin and his family. Simply put, the psychological distress became too much for Martin, so he quit. And now we’re all having a conversation about how and why this happened in an organization run by (and employing!) adults.

What’s our two cents? Here at Choices, we have a pretty good idea of why this situation unraveled. We’ve spent the last few months working on a story about hazing in high schools (look for it in the January issue!), so we’re ultra-sensitive to how “harmless pranks” can easily morph into a culture of downright harassment. Luckily, thanks to Martin’s courage in coming forward, the NFL is now being forced to explore why team officials might give hazing behavior their tacit endorsement—and we’re handed this really cool opportunity to talk to kids about how you don’t need to silently suffer. Bullying can happen to anyone (it’s nothing to be embarrassed about!), and speaking up is a statement of strength—not weakness.

So read up on both sides of the story, then talk to your students about these key issues. We’ve even put together a few discussion questions to help you as you challenge them to think critically about the situation:

1. Do all “rituals” really build team or club unity? It turns out that the Dolphins rookies (like the rookies on many other NFL teams) were regularly subjected to hazing-type rituals—teammates gave them bad haircuts, shaved their eyebrows, or forced them to pay for meals and trips—all in the name of “tradition” and “rite of passage.” Is this fair? Do you think that these sorts of traditions (on teams, in clubs, or at summer camp) can get out of hand?

2. What’s the difference between hazing and bullying? In this particular case, it’s hard to tell what kind of impact the team’s hazing rituals (pitting veterans against rookies in the name of “initiating” them) had on the bullying incidents (where Incognito tormented Martin one-on-one to assert his power). Do you think there could be a connection between the two? If so, why?

3. Are there stereotypes about the “typical” bully and victim? There’s a misconception that bullies are always bigger, stronger, and more popular than their victims. Have you seen it play out otherwise?  (Using Martin and Incognito as the atypical examples, you can help kids understand the true definition of bullying—that all it takes is an imbalance of power created through physical and emotional abuse.)

Do you have any discussion questions or teachable moments to add? We’d love to hear them! Sound off below.