Timing is everything.
On Friday, investigator Ted Wells released his “Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin Report” on the harassment that occurred between a number of Miami Dolphins offensive linemen, including Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. The investigation shows Martin was abused by Incognito and his teammates, subject to racial slurs and derogatory language, and taunted with sexually explicit and offensive remarks about Martin’s mother and sister.
There’s no need to go into any further detail. For anybody that’s been a part of a locker room, it’s known that teammates can be offensive without crossing the line — playful humor with no substance behind it, if you will. But that was not the case here. This was bullying, in the NFL, between grown men.
Five days earlier, the NFL and its fans found out that potential draftee Michael Sam is gay and, should he be picked during the draft or sign on as a free agent, will become the league’s first openly gay player.
It was almost a year ago that professional sports was taken by storm when NBA player Jason Collins revealed he was gay, though Collins had just finished up the season with the Washington Wizards and ended up not signing on with a team for the 2013-14 season, which is not believed to be because of his announcement. But now, the NFL — America’s most beloved and most-watched sport — will likely have an openly gay player who will, ideally, prove to other gay athletes that there is no reason to hide their sexuality if they don’t want to.
But how does Martin being harassed by a bunch of teammates affect Sam?
NFL insiders expect the first thing item on the NFL’s agenda this offseason to be how to prevent bullying cases like that of Martin’s from occurring again in locker rooms. Hazing is a regular part of the game; just ask any rookie. But there is and should be a clearly defined line that separates playful fun with offensive taunts, and that line should never be allowed to be crossed.
If and when the NFL institutes a harsher policy against harassment, it will, ideally, deter players like Incognito, Mike Pouncey, and John Jerry from even contemplating such inappropriate behavior. It shouldn’t be accepted nor encouraged, and given commissioner Roger Goodell’s track record of not tolerating any nonsense, there will be a severe but fair rule added that will make this offense punishable and unacceptable.
And the timing of that rule will be perfect for Sam.
So many of Sam’s former teammates and current NFL players have come out and told media outlets they would be cool with Sam being a part of their locker room, that their teams don’t care about sexual orientation; they just want a good teammate and a good football player. But whether 99 percent of players say publicly that a gay teammate isn’t an issue, there are people like Incognito that prove there will always be a minority who are too ignorant to accept someone that they consider to be “different.” And that’s why a rule against harassment will assure Sam is protected against potential bullies.
Because isn’t that what Incogito and Pouncey and Jerry are: bullies? They need to make fun of a teammate in order to deflect attention from their own selves, probably because they’re insecure and have larger issues to deal with internally. Martin, on the other hand, is a hero in many ways. One of those ways is because he is proving that bullying is not OK — at any level — and you can stand up to it no matter how old you are and whether you’re in middle school or play professional football for a living.
The same goes for Sam. He’s a hero. He will likely be the first openly gay NFL player, and he put it out there for the world to discuss and debate from now until the combine, draft, and probably for most of his rookie year. To be the first at anything is a big deal, and in the kind of world we live in these days, it should no longer be an issue if you’re gay or straight or bi-sexual or black or white or purple; we are all people and we should all be accepted for who we are.
Sam’s announcement last Sunday hopefully encouraged other players — whether they’re former, current, or future players — that they don’t have to hide it if they don’t want to. Everyone and anyone should expect acceptance, plain and simple. If and when the NFL institutes an anti-harassment rule, it’ll be reassuring to know that anyone who’s insensible enough to say something derogatory will have to face the consequences.