When offensive lineman Jonathan Martin did the unthinkable and walked away from the Miami Dolphins in the middle of the 2013 season, some said he would never play in the NFL again. Never mind the fact that he was suffering from severe depression, with ideas of self-harm on his mind. Never mind the revelations that he was dealing with the hazing, bullying and even assault perpetrated by teammates, led by his “friend” Richie Incognito. Never mind that there were coaches complicit in this scenario. His pro football days were done, not only because he left the team, but also because of what his decision to leave supposedly revealed about his character. As Reggie Rivers, a former NFL player, wrote in The Denver Post in a column titled, “Is Jonathan Martin in the Wrong Career?,” “Martin may be too quiet, too unwilling to speak up for himself and too emotionally fragile to handle the vicissitudes of the NFL. It was bad enough when Incognito was bullying him, but now that a national scandal has erupted, the situation is far worse for Martin. He may feel too humiliated to ever play in the NFL again.”
At his sports blog, Jake Elman also wrote last November, “Jonathan Martin, despite seeming to be the victim of bullying, death threats, and racism, will not play again in the National Football League. Martin has entered a list of players who teams won’t want on their rosters simply by leaving the Dolphins, exposing things that are supposed to stay in the locker room, and hiring a lawyer to investigate allegations of workplace abuse…. Martin, has one of the worst qualities you want from a player…. he’s become a distraction.”
Neither of the above pieces was unsympathetic to Martin, and the two writers should not be singled out as outliers. To the contrary, both reflected a common sentiment repeated often on sports radio: Martin was too “soft,” too “vulnerable” and too much of a “distraction” to get another chance in the National Football League. Now we know that Martin’s NFL career is not over, and this is cause for relief. The 24-year-old second-round draft pick and two-time All-American is now a member of the San Francisco 49ers, traded by the Dolphins for a song—a seventh-round draft pick that Miami receives only if Martin makes the team. It is difficult to think of a better landing place than the 49ers. They have a strong foundation, veteran leadership, a solid offensive line and most importantly, are coached by Martin’s Stanford University coach Jim Harbaugh.
Martin thrived under Harbaugh’s tutelage at Stanford. His old college coach also gave him a major boost, as Deadspin noted, when NFL investigator Ted Wells was assembling his report on Incognito and the Dolphins locker-room culture. One of the contentions of Incognito and his defenders was that Martin had no business in an NFL locker room and they should not be faulted just because he lacked the mental fortitude to handle the pressure. Ted Wells wrote in his assessment:
Jim Harbaugh, Martin’s former head coach at Stanford and the current head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, told us that he had never doubted Martin’s tenacity, work ethic and dedication to the game, and that he had never seen Martin exhibit problems with social adjustment. Coach Harbaugh told us he believed that Martin likely could continue to have a successful career in the NFL. It appears that Martin was up to the challenge of dealing with physical or verbal intimidation by opposing players during NFL games, but fell victim, at least in part, to persistent taunting from his own teammates.
It matters that Martin is getting this second chance. The idea that having mental health issues makes a person a “distraction” is not something that should be accepted with a shrug of the shoulders but needs to be challenged. The idea that having the courage to blow the whistle on an abusive situation makes a person “emotionally fragile” is so backward, one does not even know where to begin. The idea that the victim of hardcore bullying could then become further victimized by being denied a future at the age of 24 should be seen as manifestly unacceptable. This has always been about not just the NFL but about the messages the NFL sends. Mental health issues are not impermeable “handicaps” but a part of life, and admitting that you need help should never be, as Mr. Rivers wrote, “humiliating.”
This entire situation has been a stench-producing view into the reality of one NFL locker room. Jonathan Martin getting a second chance is a sign that something productive could emerge from the toxic landfill in Miami. Another positive sign was news that after trashing his own car with a bat, Richie Incognito admitted himself into a mental health facility. There is no shame in needing help. Degradation is only assured if someone pretends all is well, thinking that they are going to “man up,” when in reality they are just biding time to a greater fall. It is hard to find someone who does not hope Jonathan Martin makes it all the way back from whatever depths of depression he found himself in last year. We should hope Richie Incognito makes it back as well, whether or not that means finding a place on an NFL team.