August 30, 2014

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Scott Petrak: No place for bullying in today’s NFL

I truly enjoy covering the NFL.

I love the fact that every game is an event, not to mention the scouting combine and draft. That it’s the most popular sport in Northeast Ohio and the country. That fans talk Browns 12 months a year, even when they’ve been awful for most of the last two decades.

But sometimes I just can’t take the backward thinking that’s way too pervasive among players, former players and media members. The most recent example is from the drama going on with the Dolphins involving Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito. Martin left the team and Incognito was subsequently suspended by the team.

Nobody knows exactly what transpired inside and outside the Miami locker room. But we do know how people across the league have reacted, and that’s almost as appalling.

Hall of Famer Mike Ditka used his ESPN platform to blame Martin for not solving the problem by punching Incognito. Iron Mike wasn’t alone in his opinion.

Talk about a swing and a miss.

Maybe that’s how all conflicts were resolved in NFL locker rooms in the 1950s and ‘60s. That doesn’t make it right. And it certainly doesn’t make it OK to suggest Martin was at fault for not inflicting bodily harm on a co-worker.

I’m not saying it’s never OK to defend yourself or throw a punch. I’m saying it’s always OK to choose an alternative, whether you’re in an NFL locker room, Fortune 500 boardroom, playground or barroom. And to question the character and manhood of someone for not fighting — even if he’s a 6-foot-5, 312-pound professional football player — is irresponsible and ignorant.

It’s also wrong to let Incognito off the hook by blaming “locker room culture,” as he suggested in an interview with Fox Sports. I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you he’s a grown-&*% man, and as such should have the backbone to pick his own path and refrain from the racial slurs and overall vulgar language he said are prevalent among the Dolphins offensive linemen.

I’ve been in plenty of locker rooms, including the Browns’ on a daily basis for the last 10 years, and I’ve seen my share of boorish behavior. I fully understand the locker room can be far from an enlightened place.

I saw Gerard Warren hustle (note the irony) across the locker room to stare at the backside of a female television reporter while she tried to do her job. I’ve heard the N-word dropped too many times to count – all among black players. I’ve heard gay slurs spewed without a second thought.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

The jerks will never disappear entirely – the math says you will have at least a couple when you gather 60 elite athletes, most in their early 20s. But the unacceptable behavior can be significantly decreased. The current Browns locker room is a perfect example.

With leaders like linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and left tackle Joe Thomas setting the tone and monitoring their younger teammates, appropriate language and behavior are the norm – and expected. The correct mindset was obvious when Jackson was asked last week about the Dolphins.

He didn’t defend the culture or Incognito. He spoke in simple declaratives.

“When a guy feels like he’s being singled out, that’s not acceptable at all,” Jackson said.

The details of the Martin-Incognito situation are still coming in, and are important as we try to grasp the reasons for the unprecedented controversy. But we shouldn’t get too bogged down in the minutiae to lose sight of the big picture.

Bullying isn’t OK, anywhere. Victims shouldn’t be blamed, no matter their size. Walking away is an appropriate response, for everyone.

These messages have been an integral part of the national discourse over the last couple of weeks. It’s just unfortunate when they’re drowned out by the screams of the uninformed, short-sighted and oblivious.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @scottpetrak.