By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
Late Fall 1975, I was sitting in my living room that we never sat in with my father’s tie on. A coach from some nondescript college was talking to my Dad about me coming to play for him. “Never saw a missed block all night,” he crooned. “Your son can play.” My Dad, obviously flattered, asked the coach about academics and was edified that “Look, the books are the same wherever he goes, but we can do more for him. We can make him a man … you know, build his character.” “That’s our job,” Dad replied. Dad ushered him politely out of the house.
South Beach Bully
The nation’s been riveted by the revelations coming out of the Miami Dolphins locker room. Stanford educated right tackle Jonathan Martin abruptly left the team before a big game and checked into a local hospital claiming emotional exhaustion. The fatigue was not caused by the grinding NFL schedule but, according to Martin, from constant bullying by fellow offensive lineman Richie Incognito and others over a two-year period. Martin’s lawyers filed a complaint with the league for denying their client the right to earn a living by promoting or permitting a hostile work environment. Proven league bad-boy Incognito was suspended indefinitely.
A victim of bullying himself (according to his dad who makes Jim Piersall’s father look positively Howard Cunningham-ish by comparison-just read his message board comments sometimes), Incognito claims the coaches asked him to “toughen up” Martin. The Dolphins refuse to admit or deny any role in the hazing despite some persistent questioning from the press on the topic. Nicknamed “Big Weirdo” by Incognito and other NFL millionaires, Martin played left tackle for tough guy coach Jim Harbaugh during his college career and anchored one of the meanest o-lines in the country at Stanford. No matter, in today’s thuggish NFL because second round pick Martin didn’t drink, carouse, use racial epithets, get into fights with waiters, and generally behave the fool (like allegedly harassing women with a golf club to their private parts) like Incognito, Martin was not of the right stuff. Didn’t have the right character, you know.
Once the guffaws died down in the locker room, Martin’s teammates were quick to come to Incognito’s defense. Incognito, they said was Martin’s “best friend” and protector. Despite a grotesque voice mail message where Incognito called the mixed race Martin a “half-nigger” and threatened to defecate in places too obscene to mention, the gridiron pros from South Beach decided breaking the Code of Silence so prevalent in all all-male institutions was worse than threatening to assault someone’s mother or vowing to kill a teammate or wishing to take part in a gang rape of your sister.”If I’m not mistaken,” one teammate said, Martin played the voice mail before members of the locker room fraternity laughing all the way. “If I’m not mistaken”? You’d think you’d recall with certainty the biggest story in the country’s key piece of damning evidence, but group think does have the tendency to make your forget facts and perhaps even morals, it seems.
Heartfelt From the Heartland
Change the scene from sin-city Miami to America’s heartland in Ypsilanti, Michigan: Former hot college coach Ron English, once defensive coordinator at football factory Michigan and other lesser members of the football cabal which dominates our consciousness on Saturday afternoons — and Tuesday nights, and Thursday nights, takes a new job and vows to “change the culture” at hapless Eastern Michigan University. That was 2008 and four plus years later all the Eagles have to show for that culture change is a 1-8 record this season losing eight straight games by an average score of 48-18. The previous years under English weren’t much better. He’s gone 11-46 since his arrival. Now frustrated at his players lack of “character,” English lashes out at the 18-22 years olds who beat themselves silly every day risking real injury as football’s concussion scandal has now shown, trying to please the man in the green golf shirt with the whistle around his neck:
* “You’ll always be (bleeped) up.”
* “How did so many young guys go bad?”
* “This is (bleep) football, as bad as I’ve ever been around.”
* “You have no respect for yourself.”
* “I respect football players … you ain’t no football players.”
You can listen to the “character building” yourself. Warning: Poor audio containing harsh but common football language including the seemingly obligatory homophobic slur:
Recorded by a player, the rant forced English out as coach even before his winning (or lack thereof) percentage did. The mavens of academe (who obviously have a wolf by the ears) issued a statement that reads like an epistle from St. Paul:
“We hold our coaches and staff to high standards of professionalism and conduct and there is no place, particularly in a student environment, where the language is appropriate. The statements made by Coach English are absolutely unacceptable. My decision to make a change in leadership of our football program was the culmination of a lot of factors including the comprehensive review of our program, the competitive performance and this tape.
“Our primary interest is in the well-being and success of our student-athletes and this will continue to be our priority in every decision we make and every action we take. My focus moving forward is on the quality of our student-athletes’ experience as well as the search process for the next leader of our football program.”
Well, maybe it reads more like an episode from Lassie: “What’s that girl? You say there’s bullying going on by adults over teenagers and 20-year olds who come to our school? Quick, Lassie get to the university legal affairs office for help! We need a statement now.”
What kind of character?
Maybe, if I was more savvy back in 1975 I would have the presence of mind to ask the coach in my living room just what kind of character he had in mind for me. Judging by the two recent debacles I think I’m getting the idea. I was to be machismo incarnate — tough, hostile to gays, intolerant of “weakness” real or imagined. A carouser, a harasser of women, respecting only those in the game and no one not associated with its savage charms, in short I was to be a football player in today’s NFL.
The sad and ironic thing is that the game really can build character. Time and scores of kids I’ve coached have showed me that. It can take shy kids like I was and, when it’s done right, allow them to earn confidence and acquire leadership skills. My high school coaches, as imperfect as they were, showed me that but I was too immature to see it. At 18, all I could understand was that Dad had just dismissed one of the few coaches in the world who thought I was good enough to put on a jersey for their team. How could Dad take away my dreams and forgo whatever financial scholarship bone the coach was willing to throw my way? Boy in 1975, I was mad.
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger