I never played football beyond high school. There are two reasons for this; first, in all honesty I sucked. Unless I was willing to go the “walk-on route” there would be no opportunities for me to play in college… even if I hadn’t quit the team early in my senior year. Which brings me to reason number two; I chose to quit football because of racist comments from one of my coaches.
A little background on my situation at the time may be helpful to those who don’t know me; When I was still in high school my father’s job relocated us to Utah. So, from sophomore year until graduation I attended a catholic high school in Salt Lake City. As you can probably guess, at the time I was one of only a handful of black kids in the
school state. I was also pretty angry. Angry about the situation, angry at my father and to top it off, I was also dealing with issues of identity. I was a teenager struggling mightily to wrap my head around the realities of being a multi-racial black kid born in Trinidad, who had partly grown up in another mostly white state (Colorado), then moved back to Trinidad and just when I was starting to finally feel at home, was suddenly forced to live in the very white state of Utah. In the midst of these struggles it only took a few words from my coach to end my interest in playing for him.
One Saturday morning in late-summer, a small group of ten or so boys (including me) showed up at the school’s football field for a pre-season workout. At some point during the day, we all ended up standing around in a circle, talking and making jokes. I don’t know how we got on the topic, but somehow race came up. Then my coach started comparing me to the one other black kid at practice that day, we’ll call him Tom. Tom was not only a better player than me, but according to coach more “black” than me as well. Of all the troubling things that coach said in that moment, “you don’t talk like you’re black” are the words that for some reason hit me the hardest. Perhaps it was because everyone except me laughed in response. Or maybe it stung so much because Tom never stood up for me. He just joined in the laughter with Coach and all the rest.
I felt alone in that moment. An outsider on a team of supposed brothers that suddenly didn’t include me. Worse yet, an outsider to the only other representative of my community present that day. I know it seems minor in the grand scheme of things, but I was angry, hurt and embarrassed and I didn’t know how to respond. I wish I could say I had some snappy come-back or I was able to clearly state why and how coach’s comments hurt me, but my 17 year old, confused self was unable to do either of those things. At that age, the only thing I managed to do was shut up, finish the practice and quit the team soon after (without ever telling anyone why).
For some black people, experiences like these aren’t all that uncommon. For this reason, Jonathan Martin’s experience felt familiar the moment I heard it. Although our situations are very different, I can’t shake this sense that I can, to some degree, understand what Martin must be feeling right now. Granted, his situation is multilayered in ways that mine wasn’t, a fact that many people far more eloquent then I have already commented on (you can find some of those eloquent voices here and here and here and here and here and here and here). Incognito’s bullying is one thing, but I’m guessing comments from Martin’s black teammates sting just as much, if not more. Can you imagine what it must feel like to hear your black teammates calling a violent, abusive white man like Incognito a “honorary brother” while implying that you are not black enough due to upbringing, Ivy League education and bi-racial identity? I can. I’ve lived through my own version of this hell many times in my life.
It’s funny to listen to Martin’s teammates talk about “handling things in-house” when those same teammates proved over-and-over that they considered Martin to be an outsider. There was no in-house for Jonathan Martin, not among his teammates and certainly not among the coaches and executives who assigned a colleague with a history of violence and anger issues to “toughen him up.” I can fully understand why Martin would carefully document every incident of harassment and abuse that he suffered through (just as anyone who feels harassed at work is instructed to do). I understand why Martin would choose to leave the team and I understand why the experience affected him so deeply.
Which brings me to my final point, that I’ll let Chicago Bear’s wide receiver Brandon Marshall state for me;
“Look at it from this standpoint,” Marshall said. “Take a little boy and a little girl. A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is ‘Get up, shake it off. You’ll be OK. Don’t cry.’ A little girl falls down, what do we say? ‘It’s going to be OK.’ We validate their feelings. So right there from that moment, we’re teaching our men to mask their feelings, to not show their emotions. And it’s that times 100 with football players. You can’t show that you’re hurt, can’t show any pain. So for a guy to come into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, that’s a problem.”
– Brandon Marshall (as reported by the Chicago Tribune)
I’m highlighting Marshall’s quote because it’s not only spot on, but it’s also a point we make in Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) trainings all the time (also –shameless self promotion– back in 2007, I co-facilitated a training with MVP for the Denver Broncos and Brandon Marshall, who was at the time a Broncos player, was in my session). I just want to echo his words (as he echoed ours). It doesn’t matter that Martin is a 300lb NFL lineman. Like all human beings, Martin has feelings. One can only feel like an outsider for so long before it begins to take a toll. It’s a shame that members of his own community, those who should be accepting and supporting Martin turned their backs on him instead.
Maybe one day the black community will do a better job of accepting the diversity of experience that already exists among us. And maybe one day the football community… players, fans and executives alike, will stop viewing violent bullying and thuggish behavior as something to aspire to. But those days are probably far off. In the meantime, I support Jonathan Martin and anyone else who’s brave enough to break the silence of their team, organization or group in order to end bullying and harassment and find a little peace in their life.