By now, whether you are a National Football League fan or not, you have probably heard of tackle Jonathan Martin and offensive lineman Richie Incognito of the Miami Dolphins. Although not verified, it has been rumored that besides protecting quarterback Ryan Tannehill on Sundays, Incognito’s other job was to toughen up Martin, a 24-year-old African American second-year offensive lineman.
To bring you up to speed, according to Associated Press, Martin’s season officially ended Saturday when the Dolphins put the offensive tackle on the reserve/non-football illness list. That allowed his roster spot to be filled by safety D.J. Campbell, who was promoted from the team’s practice squad.
Martin left the Dolphins on Oct. 28, at the start of what has become an explosive probe into allegations that a culture of bullying surrounds the team and takes place inside its locker room.
Incognito was also suspended Nov. 3 for his alleged role in the turmoil. Sources report last week that the Dolphins and Incognito agreed to extend his suspension past the four-week window typically allowed by league rules, and that he would resume getting paid.
“Toughen him up,” “aggression,” “an overabundance of testosterone”—these are words that make coaches at any level of football salivate, according to a quote by football legend Vince Lombardi.
In an effort get inside the concept of bullying, particularly in the context of sports and within the African American community OW conducted a survey with former and current youth football coaches and attempted to locate a youth player who may have experienced a hostile environment on grade-school level perpetrated by peers in his age group or slightly older.
We found one. Let’s call him Jimmie. He is currently playing high school football and when the news of the Martin-Incognito incident made headline news, his old coach, Matthew Redd, thought of a kid he once coached at Rancho Cienega Park who would hit a player during practice and then apologize for hitting him.
Redd laughed and said he remembered “it took us weeks to get the kid to hit somebody. We had a dance contest once, and when this kid would dance it was like he was doing Kung-fu. I believe most of the older kids were doing a dance called the running man. I believe he tested in the upper 90 percentile in math for the state of California and always complained about his teammates’ passion for spitting while talking.”
Game day Sept. 25, 2013
Jimmie’s mother was literally cringing with fear as she observed her son, a 275 pound high school junior defensive tackle charge the opposing teams offensive line with his fists balled only to throw a left hook that landed on the side of his opponent’s helmet. This was an ongoing technique he would use throughout the game, and he had it down to a science. The former Baldwin Hills youth football player was able to deliver helmet blows without a single flag being thrown. Both of his parents attending his high school football game, looked on in shock at their son’s behavior.
The father thought silently about what he had just seen happen, and at the same time the mother asked with uncertainty “honey why is he doing that; he’s going to start a fight.” Honey look!” “He’s playing dirty “and “Oh my God look at him leave the field, he’s running like Robocop. What happened to my sweet son?”
Later on, the 16 year old was pulled out of the game by his coach and criticized for personally focusing more on injuring an opponent than executing a play. At times during the game, two or more offensive players were required to block him. And during one particular play he aimed at one kid’s stomach and injured him, then returned to the huddle as if nothing had happened. Meanwhile the opposing team member was stretched out on the field in pain.
Jimmie’s parents both thought the blows he was throwing were overkill and had observed an exchange of words between the two prior to his son injuring the other player.
When questioned by his parents the following morning about his aggressive play and possibly unsportsmanlike behavior on the field, Jimmie responded that he played in a hostile environment and was constantly getting punked and picked on along the sideline by his older teammates who were considered veterans.
This had taken place for years while he played for the Baldwin Hills Bruins, according to his dad. His father went on to explain that his son’s teammates were older kids and his son believed it was accepted behavior. “That is why he socks helmets today.”
The now 6 foot 5 inch tall high school junior had to play with middle school students while he was in the third grade because of the size and weight restrictions set up by the league.
The 16 year old laughed and also explained that the kid he injured was “talking stuff” about his mother the entire game. He also expressed the fact that football was an aggressive sport, and he couldn’t understand why Jonathan Martin quit the Miami Dolphins; he thought the pro player should have smacked the guy or something.
Jimmie’s mother was unable to answer any questions about his playing environment at Baldwin Hills. She only remembers being concerned about his safety and did not want her sons playing at all. She accused his father of forcing their sons to play.
However, the dad felt like Baldwin was no different than any other league in the inner city. “Coaches want to win, and if kids think you are soft they will mentally intimidate you or sucker punch you, sometimes with the knowledge of the coaching staff. The only difference is there are no locker rooms for the abuse to occur in, so it takes place on the open field sometimes in front of you. It was definitely an experience.”
The dad remembers, it was a common occurrence that kids bumped his son on the sideline during practice then told him to move or get out of the way or told him he sucks. He was more a verbal punching bag than physical. Jimmie’s father believes that this was the typical behavior of young African American males that age, and asked “we accept bullying as a right-of-passage of growing up in the ’hood don’t we?”
About another occasion, he recounts this story: “One night after practice, the team captain used his son’s duffle bag containing his clothes as a seat while conducting a team meeting. His actions damaged a cell phone stored in the duffle bag, and he approached his son, the then-third grader and asked if he wanted him to speak to the coach. He responded “it’s okay Dad; they treat me like that because I am a must play.”
His dad believed this was not a type of ritualistic hazing but that his teammates saw him as a weak link.
“Winning isn’t everything but the only thing.”
Andrew Jackson has years of experience coaching and playing football. He was a former running back with the Houston Oilers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a tailback for USC. He has coached youth football, high school, and worked as a conditioning coach for Michigan State University’s football team. He believes youth football has become very competitive especially with new leagues, and they want the best kids and the kids want to win.
Jackson believes there are two type of coaches in youth football—the ones who want to win by any means possible and the ones that want to train and develop kids overlooking wins. He contends that the latter is very difficult to do. That is in part because parents want their kids to play for a winning organization.
Jackson smiled as he talked about the term must-play and whether must-plays are put in a micro Jonathan Martin situation.
“The term is used to identify a youngster who has not fully developed into a stellar player. He may be new to organized football, however as long as he is on the team roster he is required by league guidelines to play at least, I believe, nine minutes or eight plays a game. Some coaches view a kid that has been labeled a must-play as the Achilles heel of the team, and will attempt to rid the team roster of individuals they believe will fit into that criteria. Jackson says while working in youth sports he has observed this behavior by some youth football coaches who believe winning is the only thing they are on the field for.
He also believes team members pick up on the coach’s unhappiness with a must-play and will not be as friendly with the kid and even at times will disrespect him. Jackson believes coaches use several ways to get rid of a must-play depending on the league.
“For example there are coaches in the Snoop Dogg league who will pit a five-star kid against a one-star kid. I’ve seen it done. The coach knows that one-star kid is incapable of competing against such a more seasoned opponent and is cut.
“Sometimes league rules prevent coaches from cutting weak players, but they can cut a player when they base the cut on concerns about the kid’s safety. I have seen parents drive up and see their kids in gym shorts crying as a result of their uniforms being taken during practice. This occurs in front of other teammates and parents, a common occurrence in the Snoop Dogg league.
While coaching youth sports Jackson said he would often take a player he felt was weak and attempt to strengthen his skills regardless of the youth’s value to the team.
Jimmie’s father believes the kids placed on a must-play list are definitely in a Martin-like situation, maybe not as amplified however, just as devastating in the eyes of a third grader.
“Witnessing these hazing actions on the sidelline, I knew my son would have become extremely upset if I would have intervened. I also may have accepted his teammates’ behavior because I witnessed the same environment in high school while playing in the Southern League, football is an aggressive sport.
The Southern League Athletic Conference was an league of primarily African American high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District active between the 1940s and the 1970s.
A number of coaches in the Baldwin Hills League were former Southern League players.
“I also felt after being approached by two Baldwin Hills youth league board members wanting my son to quit as result of their belief that he did not have the ability to protect himself due to his inexperience, that the coaches may have allowed certain things to happen.”
In doing research OW was able to confirm that there had been a youth football fatality at Rancho Cienega park during or slightly before this 16 year old would have been playing so the coaches concern could have been legitimate.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Sergeant Kenneth Clark, another former high school Southern League football player believes this type of hazing behavior has been around since he played high school football in the mid 1970s.
“You see it all. It is my belief that when teammates believe you are weak, they attempt to break you and force you to quit so you do not disgrace the team or lower the standards of the team. African American males at my former high school played sports because they dreamed of going to the NFL, and they wanted to emulate their favorite professional team; they saw a weak teammate as a insult to the team.
“I believe I witnessed one of the most degrading acts ever committed on the practice field, when an upperclassman urinated in a freshman’s helmet, and the kid unknowingly put it on shortly afterwards. It reinforced the senior defensive ends’ reputation of being crazy. The coaches knew and did nothing. The kid accepted the abuse and went on to start his senior year,” recalls Clark.
Los Angeles psychologist Ronald Banks has had the opportunity to interact with different cultures in youth football. Initially his son played in a youth program at Rancho Cienega park that was majority Black, and then later at Culver City which was more integrated. Banks said he observed two different coaching methods. African American coaches were more in your face, intense and used a lot of yelling. White coaches were calmer when talking to a kid. However after a practice, they both demonstrated a mild temperament and love for their players.
Tom Statham, who coached Banks’ son’s youth football team in Culver City, believes the league is no longer mostly White. While he was coaching, he was not allowed to cut.
“We had a proactive board, and they would not allow it.”
“You also noticed a lot of White kids were intimidated by Black opposing teams. Black players had more swag. We (Culver City) lost games (against Black teams) we should have won based on film we looked at. Our kids were not mentally there because, they were intimidated by the swag.”
Statham believes that had the Black teams had an obviously weak player that may have prevented his team from becoming mentally intimidated.
However, Statham believes he was guilty of playing the race card as a coach. His son was the team quarterback and was able to reach the next level of play by having Black receivers to throw to. “They were quicker, which allowed my son to develop better timing for high school and college. I would recruit Black players for defensive and offensive backs and wide receivers especially when I was able to inject my son into the QB position, something I think most youth coaches are guilty of.”
Statham believes the coaching style and team culture (on Black squads) may be the result of inner city coaches being former inner city players and this is what they witnessed.
“However, this style of coaching and culture isn’t exclusive to Black coaches. I played high school ball in Texas, and my high school coach—a White guy and a deacon in our church—would drop the F bomb every fifteen minutes. I didn’t do it, but man there were times when I wish I could have. Growing up in Texas during the ’60s and ’70s, I do not understand the difference between Ni##a and Ni##er I believe they both are offensive and believe it is bull if it is allowed in an NFL locker room. I cannot believe other Black players allowed it to happen. The NFL needs to fix it, I cannot believe Martin allowed this deranged player to force him off the field, especially if he played inner city youth football. Recently the NFL became a nonprofit organization to avoid paying millions to the Internal Revenue Service. I believe if the NFL doesn’t clean up its culture and set an example for youth, they should have their nonprofit status revoked. I also believe we should allow Martin to decide who he wants to surround himself with professionally because he is capable of pursuing any type of profession he wants based on his intelligence.
“The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.”