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“The NFL’s Bully Problem”: Sports Columnist Dave Zirin Connects Violence in Sports to Rape Culture

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The National Football League’s culture of violence has come under scrutiny after Miami Dolphins player Richie Incognito allegedly made bullying and racist threats to his teammate Jonathan Martin. The Dolphins initially denied the threats, but later suspended Incognito, one of the team’s most popular players. For more, we talk with Dave Zirin, The Nation sports editor and host of Edge of Sports Radio. For those who think the controversy is simply a “sports issue,” Zirin explains: “Think about other stories that have been in the media recently with names like Steubenville or Maryville or Torrington, Connecticut, instances where you see this connective tissue between jock culture and rape culture. All of these things are very connected. This idea where you get young men in a very violent kind of group mentality … It creates a very, very destructive social climate that puts terrible social cues out to the general public.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: And before we go, the bully issue.


AMY GOODMAN: If you could talk about the NFL and the Miami Dolphins?

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, this is a huge issue. I mean, what’s happening right now in the Miami Dolphins locker room is that the players are really coming together in what I called an act of bully solidarity, to support their teammate Richie Incognito.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened, for people who aren’t following this.

DAVE ZIRIN: Sure, sure. It started with two guys in the locker room. One’s name is Richie Incognito; the other’s name is Jonathan Martin. Jonathan Martin left the team because of what he later revealed to be a series of racist voicemail messages that threatened him, that threatened his family, and that Richie Incognito, the accused bully in this story, said was all a big joke, and it was also really only being done to toughen up Jonathan Martin.

AMY GOODMAN: That he was told to toughen him up.

DAVE ZIRIN: And that’s the part of the story that’s really important. And this is based on my own interviews with NFL players. Nothing happens in an NFL locker room that doesn’t happen with the—with the orders of the coach himself, because, remember, these contracts are not guaranteed that these players have in an NFL locker room, and so nothing is going to happen without a very vertically structured kind of arrangement. And so, Richie Incognito, it’s now widely believed, was told by his coaching staff and by the general manager of the team, director of player personnel Jeff Ireland, who said that Jonathan Martin, who went to Stanford and was seen to be, quote-unquote, “soft,” which is part of this issue, are these conceptions of manliness that the NFL has in its locker room, like being a man means that you’re willing to go out there and be violent, and being soft means that you don’t want to be part of, I would argue to be, a deeply homophobic, deeply sexist culture that takes place in the locker room. And Jonathan Martin, who’s been derided as soft for blowing the whistle on this, I would argue, is actually showing tremendous courage by coming forward. And the more that’s coming out of the Miami Dolphins locker room, frankly, the worse it looks. So this actually is a huge crisis for the National Football League.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Dave, I wanted to ask you specifically about this culture in the NFL.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We’re seeing it over and over again, with Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints being suspended for having—ordering his players to hurt other opposing players, deliberately take them out of the game; Michael Vick with the situation with his attacks on dogs. Aside from the individual violent actions, this culture of impunity and of—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —constant violence and bullying in the NFL is really at epic proportions, and yet it’s not really being discussed as a huge trend.

DAVE ZIRIN: It needs to be discussed. You know, the U.S. Marine Corps has had a uniform code against hazing since 1997, so even the U.S. Marine Corps realizing that they need to have some sort of structure to try to stop the abuse of people that only happens because someone is seen to be as weak, you know, by the perceptions of the Marines. The NFL has no kind of guidelines against hazing whatsoever, no kinds of guidelines against bullying. And let’s call this for what it is: I mean, it’s racist harassment.

And anybody out there listening who might think, “Well, this is just a sports issue, what have you,” think about other stories that have been in the media recently, with names like Steubenville or Maryville or Torrington, Connecticut, instances where you see this connective tissue between jock culture and rape culture. All of these things are very connected, like this idea where you get young men in a very violent kind of group mentality that says that, frankly, that things like violence are theirs for the taking, women are theirs for the taking, by any means necessary. And it creates, I think, a very, very destructive climate that puts terrible social cues out to the general public.

AMY GOODMAN: This is what Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall had to say about the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal.

DAVE ZIRIN: I love this quote.

BRANDON MARSHALL: A little boy falls down, the first thing we say as parents is, “Get up, shake it off. You’ll be OK. You know, don’t cry.” When a little girl falls down, what we say? “It’s going to be OK.” We validate their feelings. So right there, from that moment, we’re teaching our men, you know, to mask their feelings, don’t show their emotions. And it’s that times a hundred with football players. Can’t show that you’re hurt. You can’t show any pain. So, for a guy that comes in the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, you know, that’s a problem. So that’s what I mean by the culture of the NFL. And that’s what we have to change.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Last comment?

DAVE ZIRIN: Thank you, Brandon Marshall. If this can produce anything, I mean, hopefully it can produce a discussion about the very, very destructive gender binary that we have in this country that says men need to act one way, women need to act another. We need to lose that right away, because the results of it leave, I think, a terrible body count.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Dave Zirin, for being with us, sports columnist for The Nation, host of Edge of Sports on SiriusXM. And I also want to thank Clyde Bellecourt for being with us, founder and director of the American Indian Movement, also with the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media. We will certainly continue to follow this story. When we come back, we look at the lessons from the Washington state GMO debate. Stay with us.

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