As the Miami Dolphins bullying story continues to gain national attention for harassment and extortion caused by Richie Incognito toward Jonathan Martin, the national discourse has expanded into a larger discussion of bullying. From a sport psychology perspective this is especially interesting, as our culture often expects big, tough athletes to be able to not only endure bullying, but also have the wherewithal and desire to fight back. In fact, many people have spoken out seemingly shocked that Martin, a 300lb + guy himself, didn’t fight back (he is even taking some backlash for seemingly being “soft”).
While the assumption is that big, tough athletes can handle themselves when they are confronted by bullies, the bigger question might not be if they can stand up, but whether they should even have to? In other words, when Jonathan Martin signed up to play football years ago, should he have also accepted the fact that at some point he might have to get into physical fights and confrontations? Football, while a violent game on the field, does not require players to fight — even if they are big, strong, and tough. Football players are expected to know their job and execute on the field, but should a player like Martin be looked down upon for simply turning the other cheek and deciding to not engage with a bully like Incognito?
Interestingly, the classic hockey movie Slap Shot (1977) offers an eerily similar example of a player (Ned Braden, played by Michael Ontkean) who played the game of hockey to score goals and win games — not engage in fights. In the movie the team begins to gain more fanfare for the “goons” signed on to start fights, but Braden responds by taking a stand and purposely not fighting. Of course, the film more or less depicts Braden as an oddball for not getting into the action, but Braden’s character is a more sophisticated, college-educated player more interested in playing hockey than throwing down the gloves.
So back to Martin and all the other athletes who are good at their respective sports, but not interested in fighting (or getting involved with any of the other activities not included in their job description). Are they wimps as some people are saying? Should every hockey player know he or she is going to have to become a fighter in order to play hockey? Similarly, should every football player be prepared to fight if confronted by a bully like Incognito?
When I work with athletes and teach mental toughness skills, we actually discuss skills like confidence building, focus, and restraint/resiliency when faced with tough situations. What we do not do is look at the ways in which a player can become more mentally tough through purposeful aggression, fighting, instigating, or “getting even.” Still, there are some who believe that athletes like Martin (and the fictitious Ned Braden from Slap Shot) should know that being a tough guy and fighting when needed is not only desirable, but expected.