John Q. Public should be penalized 15 yards for piling-on

In today’s Repman guest blog, WalekPeppercomm’s Dmitriy Ioselevich provides a unique perspective on the Richie Incognito bullying brouhaha… 

self centeredsssssssReputation management typically comes in one of two forms—corporate or individual. But with today’s movement towards increased transparency and communication one group has gotten a free pass—the general public.

I bring this up in light of the ongoing Miami Dolphins bullying saga. For those not up-to-date on the goings on of the Dolphins locker room, the controversy began on Halloween when former Miami lineman Jonathan Martin announced that he would be leaving the team to receive help for emotional issues. According to a statement made by Martin’s attorney, David Cornwell, the 6’5”, 312-pound Martin was the victim of frequent harassment and bullying, including “a malicious physical attack” and “daily vulgar comments,” courtesy of his 6’3”, 319-pound teammate, Richie Incognito. Incognito was subsequently suspended by the team and the NFL is currently investigating the allegations.

In short, one very large man hurt another very large man’s feelings and then we all talked non-stop about it for the next two weeks. We asked questions, but not before first pointing fingers, and in the process we eagerly tore up the reputations of everyone involved and fed them into a shredder.

These are all quotes from journalists, other players and fans. Everyone is entitled to their opinion of course, but the last one in particular stands out because it is the furthest from the truth.

The first reaction most people had to this story, including Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland, was to wonder why Martin didn’t just stand up to Incognito and “punch him.” It’s a case study into human emotion that these observers equate aggression with strength and mental illness with weakness, and a poor reflection on fans in general.

Football fans, the same ones who have been clamoring for the league to do to something to protect players from head trauma, must suffer from short-term memory loss. Less than a year ago another troubled player, Kansas City’s Jovan Belcher, murdered his girlfriend, drove to his team’s practice facility and then shot himself in the head.

An increasing number of football players are choosing to walk away from the game before they end up like Belcher or Aaron Hernandez, and nobody calls them weak. But because Martin’s reason for leaving is some supposedly innocent bullying, then people naturally question his manhood.

Thankfully not everyone holds this view. Grantland’s Brian Phillips wrote a scathing article on the bullying scandal, making the point that “when a player says he needs time off for mental reason – again: in a sport with a suicide problem – it shouldn’t spark a national conversation on whether he’s soft.”

But in today’s machismo-fueled culture, that’s exactly what it does. As communicators we spend so much time and energy trying to educate the public about the newest trends or regulations, yet rarely do we step back and consider what the public actually believes. In the case of mental illness, scientific research and public perception are on completely different wavelengths. Most people probably know that the insane asylum glamorized by the TV show American Horror Story is barbaric, yet when a man like Martin asks for help the first reaction is to criticize, rather than to help.

This reality is a stark reminder that perception works both ways. While Corporate America is under increasing pressure to be more ‘community-friendly,’ it may be time for the public at large to share some of the responsibility. After all, communication is a two-way street.

14 thoughts on “John Q. Public should be penalized 15 yards for piling-on

  1. If we’re handing out a mental health diagnosis let’s not overlook Incognito, who is a few yards short of a fourth down. Didn’t anyone here see “A Few Good Men”? Incognito isn’t nearly as smart as Colonel Jessup. So who is Colonel Jessup, Coach? Who is Colonel Jessup, General Manager? Who gave the “code red” to teach Martin a lesson?

  2. Agree with Rep 100%. He doesn’t pull “pranks.” His good-natured ribbing and joking is one reason Peppercomm is the best place to work in NY. Just ask Crain’s NY business.

  3. Sorry Greg, but mental illness, is VASTLY different from having a drug problem or being a compulsive gamblers. And on top of that, A-Rob denies his problem, as do the majority of compulsive gamblers, alcoholics and drug-addicts.

  4. Now, hold on there, professor. Let’s keep Repman’s pranks out of this particular conversation. His pranks are joyous occasions, and fun for all concerned (including those being pranked). And, let the record show that Repman has fallen victim to many office pranks pulled by his colleagues.

  5. I disagree with you, Dmitri, to some degree and hear me out. If Martin does suffer from a mental illness, then it’s no different than Alex Rodriguez having a drug problem (performance-enhancing steroids) or Cincinnati’s Pete Rose or former Ohio State and Baltimore Colt quarterback Art Schlichter being compulsive gamblers. These also are recognized as mental illnesses. Yet, how does the public treat them?

    I can share from my experience as a former beat writer covering the New York Jets in the 1970s that the lockerroom is pretty much uncontrolled. Coaches were rarely seen in the lockerroom following a practice or even before practice when I visited on media day. Players would be sitting on their stools in front of their locker or playing cards sitting at a table in the middle of the room or even watching soap operas on the TVs. In effect, players were left to police themselves.

    There were pranks being played, much like the Repman would. Yet, it was lively and created a fun atmosphere. The NFL goes through so many things to prepare for the draft. Their checklists include the Combine where they test future NFL players for physical skills such as time in the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical leap and more. And they test for academic skills, too.

    Players continue to get bigger, stronger and faster to make the grade in this sport. Often, diminutive players are questioned as to whether they can cut it. Folks like New Orleans return man Darren Sproles or Denver receiver Wes Welker are just a few.

    But playing on either the offensive and defensive lines are where most games are won — either protecting the quarterback or getting to the quarterback. In the Dolphins coaching staffs opinion, Martin apparently was “soft.” Incognito was designated as the man to help toughen him through whatever means. However, I highly doubt that management or the coaching staff was even aware of what was going on.

    Rookies have been known to be forced to stand in the middle of the room and sing their school’s fight song. But how much of the “hazing” has gotten out of hand is not known. This is not youth sports where sportsmanship counts. Everyone is out to win.

    Yes, it’s a shame that these things occur but it happens in the everyday in the workplace. In fact, I personally worked for a boss who constantly created trouble among employees said, “so and so said this about you” and so on just to stir the pot. And in the end, most of it was BS.

    Will society change and be more compassionate? Not sure. In terms of the NFL, I highly doubt it. They have a game to play and it’s a physical game. Fans like hard hits, much like ice hockey. And when they see blood, they cheer even louder.

    I believe it will get worse before it gets better.

    • Thanks very much for the read, Greg. You make a very good point that players are expected to police themselves in the locker room and the Dolphins definitely deserve to shoulder the blame for this whole circus. I don’t think Incognito is necessarily a bad person. It’s just that he, like most people in the country, never expected a professional football player to be so sensitive to verbal abuse.

      That’s not a knock on Martin. Incognito just happened to pick the right buttons. Some people just don’t do well with that kind of negative reinforcement. Doesn’t matter if it’s a locker room or the workplace. Everyone has a unique personality and what might look like a joke to one person could be considered harassment for another person.

      I also have to disagree that mental illness is anything like having a drug problem. In most cases, it’s the mental illness that drives someone to have a drug problem. This is in all likelihood the explanation for A-Rod’s behavior. Check out this Miami Herald feature if you’re interested in figuring out why an otherwise world-class athlete would succumb to using performance-enhancing drugs (http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/08/03/3541537/miami-is-integral-to-alex-rodriguezs.html).

      As a society we need to stop acting like mental illnesses don’t exist. The sex, race, age, size or profession of the individual in question does not matter. If there’s a way to help someone like Martin then isn’t it our responsibility as human beings to do so before something terrible happens? I think so.

  6. Btw, Peter Engel is being humble about his personal football credentials. I can confirm that the man was a vicious middle linebacker on the legendary Earle Palmer Brown teams of the early 1990s.

  7. Bingo. After the Newtown school shooting, the Boston bombing, indeed after every senseless act of violence by someone who has mental problems, the resounding question is, were there warning signs? And here we have someone who is not only strong physically, but strong enough of character to say, “I need help.” And society belittles him. You can’t win for losing.

    • “Even Giants are Human” — the new book by former professional football player, Jonathan Martin.

  8. Astute observations, gentlemen. We live in a very sad time indeed. On the one hand, we accept the continued dumbing down of society courtesy of mindless TV sitcoms (i.e. ANY CBS sitcom), tasteless celebrities (Miley, Justin, et al) and incompetent politicians (i.e. the entire Beltway), yet we cannot accept mental illness for what it is. E pluribus unum should be changed to E pluribus ignorance.

  9. Thanks Paul. The other point that’s worth making here is the public reaction towards the Newtown school shooter, and to a lesser extent the Boston Marathon bombers because that tragedy was at least partially fueled by ideological views. It’s easy to call someone a monster. It’s much harder to figure out what made them that way. Hopefully one day there’ll be an efficient mechanism for identifying these kinds of issues before it’s too late.

  10. Great piece, Dmitriy. It continues to amaze me how far behind we are in understanding mental illness. Depression is often categorized colloquially as being, “sad.” It’s a veritable illness just like any physical ailment. Of course, when we have blowhards like Wayne LaPierre advocating for further alienation of those with mental illness instead of more understanding, it doesn’t help the issue. While Jonathan Martin may (or may not) have had an actual mental issue, what’s certain is that any criticism of Martin and any rationalization for Incognito’s behavior will keep pushing us further back as a society when it comes to showing compassion for others and zero tolerance for those who demean other people.

    • This is a very astute piece, Dmitriy.

      Even my wife, normally the most sensitive to the emotional struggles of others, reacted with, “who cares about a tiff between two NFL meatheads?”

      The reason people care is because what those guys do on and off the field reflect how we feel about ourselves as men. And when you’ve had enough verbal abuse, there are all kinds of ways to go. One is the destructive road that Belcher took.

      It’s clear that the Dolphins put Cognito “on” Martin’s case in time-tested “mental toughness” hazing. Now that it’s been brought to light, they’re squiggling because “mental toughness” and bringing someone down aren’t the same thing.

      I admire what Jonathan Martin did. I hope he comes back both to a great career and as an advocate for mental health and anti-bullying.

      • Thanks Peter.

        I don’t want to speculate on what actually did or didn’t happen between Incognito and Martin. But if we assume that Martin is being at least somewhat honest then it’s amazing how much vitriol has been thrown in his direction, especially by his old teammates!

        Many talking heads thought the sports world would explode if a professional athlete came out as being gay, and then Jason Collins came along and we had a nice discussion about it and moved on. Somehow, mental illness has earned the same stigma that was once attached to homosexuality.