Last week, Miami Dolphins player Richie Incognito was suspended indefinitely for allegely bullying teammate Jonathan Martin.
The story has me searching for answers to questions such as:
- why did it take this long for someone to hear Martin's cries for help?
- where were his teammates, coaches and the rest of the organization while the alleged bullying was occurring?
- why did it get to the point that Martin fely like he had to quit before someone heard him?
When you listen to players' comments, they seem to go both ways, some in defense of Incognito's alleged behavior, some not. The Dolphins' organization said it was in the dark, and expressed complete surprise and shock. Clearly, Martin didn't feel it was safe for him to speak up to anyone.
If we think that this is an isolated incident, then we are blind to what is really going on in sport. The sad truth is that there is bullying at every level of sports. Has bullying become so much the norm that we can't see the forest through the trees?
The reason I founded Safe4Athletes was to give every athlete a voice when they are victims of abuse, harrassment and bullying, Jonathan Martin included. He should be able to practice and play his sport free from harassment, just as every employee in the workplace.
The policies, procedures, and safeguards Safe4Athletes has developed to address abuse, bullying and harassment have been implemented at every level of sports. Isn't there room in professional sports for athletes to have a safe and positive experience, without in any way making the team less competitive on the field or destroying team chemistry?
I believe that, at every level of sport, including the NFL and other professional sports, there need to be policies, procedures, and safeguards in place to meet the needs of athletes who complain of abuse, bullying and harassment. The Safe4Athletes model calls for the appontment of an athlete welfare advocate (or a team of athlete welfare advocates) to represent the needs of athletes, not the organization, which may be indifferent to and turn a blind eye towards those needs.
When allegations of abuse, harassment, or bullying are made, an athlete welfare advocate should have the power to call for an investigation, to give athletes a voice, to require the sports organization to listen.
We need to teach athletes how to speak up. We need to make it safe for athletes to feel safe reporting instances of harassment, abuse, and bullying.
We need to pull our collective heads out of the sand to listen to all athletes, from Pop Warner to the NFL, when they have the courage to speak up. Every sports program needs to be aware of the tell-tale signs of abuse.
There are lots of Jonathan Martins out there being bullied. Let's make sure we not only know about as many of them as possible, but actually put policies and procedures in place to protect them from being bullied in the first place.
To learn more about adopting Safe4Athletes practices in your sports club and giving every athlete a voice, please visit our website @ www.safe4athletes.org.