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The Boston Globe

Sports

Christopher L. Gasper

NFL must take a stand on bullying and hazing

Depending on whose version of the story you believe, Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin is a brave whistleblower, a weak-minded wimp, a perfidious backstabber, or a shrewd opportunist.

The allegations of bullying and hazing that Martin has levied against teammate Richie Incognito, who was suspended by the team after a virulent voicemail to Martin with a racial slur was released, have become the ultimate he-said, he-said.

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Who is telling the truth and the motivation behind each statement and sourced story are as murky as an Everglades swamp.

But what is clear, judging by the general reaction to Martin’s allegations, is that the insular and Darwinian culture of the NFL locker room is not yet ready to join the rest of society in open acknowledgment of the seriousness of bullying. Instead, that culture is more interested in protecting locker room sanctity.

What the NFL, which has opened an investigation into the Martin case, should be concerned about is its players creating an environment that is openly hostile to the next player reporting bullying or harsh hazing tactics.

After the reaction to Martin, is a player dealing with bullying in his locker room going to feel more or less comfortable reporting it to his team or the NFL? I say less, considering Martin’s manhood, motivation, and desire to play football all have been questioned in the wake of his allegations.

Instead of questioning a culture that condones hazing, the reflex reaction of many immersed in that culture is to question the toughness of the alleged victim.

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That itself feels like . . . bullying.

The jocktocracy, full of current and former players, spun into overdrive trying to rationalize and extenuate the alleged actions of Incognito, who has a troubled past that includes being regarded as one of the NFL’s dirtiest players, while reprimanding Martin for breaking the locker room (man) code of silence.

The majority of Martin’s teammates publicly sided with Incognito. One of Martin’s fellow offensive linemen, Tyson Clabo, said Martin needed to act like a man.

“I think if you have a problem with somebody — a legitimate problem with somebody — you should say, ‘I have a problem with this,’ and stand up and be a man,” Clabo said Wednesday. “I don’t think what happened is necessary.”

Clabo was just following the purported lead of Miami general manager Jeff Ireland.

Martin’s agent, Rick Smith, told Profootballtalk.com that when he alerted Ireland to the situation between Martin and Incognito, Ireland suggested Martin just punch Incognito, proving Hammurabi could have been an NFL executive.

This type of man-up, blame-the-victim attitude is designed to maintain the might-makes-right hierarchy that is part of the Cro-Magnon canon of pro football.

But the game of football has evolved beyond other testosterone-fueled codes. At one time it was OK to deny your players water on a hot day. It was viewed as a way of toughening them up. But the game evolved past that.

At one time it was OK to tell a player who had been hit in the head to suck it up and get back in the game. Now, with concussion awareness, the game has evolved past that.

Now, the game must evolve past the idea that hazing, intimidating, or belittling teammates is a necessary part of NFL team-building. It’s not.

The macho mores of the game have to change with the times.

The NFL can’t let alleged bullying behavior become yet another reason that young parents steer their children away from football.

The idea that it is necessary for a team to bond through the subjugation and humiliation of some of its junior members is a dubious concept. The fact is that this stuff exists primarily for the amusement of the more senior members of the group. Period.

What hazing or bullying often comes down to is some sort of attempt at forced or coerced conformity, an effort to strip someone of their individuality or mute their personality for the comfort or entertainment of those doing the bullying or hazing.

Anyone who has started on the bottom rung of a profession understands there are dues and respects to be paid to more experienced colleagues.

But there is a difference between asking a rookie to bring the doughnuts to a meeting and verbally or physically harassing him or extorting money for meals or trips.

If Martin’s allegations, which through a statement released by his lawyer, David Cornwell, implicated other unnamed teammates and included “a malicious physical attack” and vulgar comments about sexual acts with his sister are true, it’s not surprising he would be singled out.

A 2012 second-round pick by Miami, Martin doesn’t profile as your typical NFL player. He went to Stanford, where he majored in the Classics. Both of his parents are Harvard-educated with law degrees.

Before Stanford, Martin attended an elite private school in Southern California, Harvard-Westlake School.

He is an NFL outlier, a 300-pound, soft-spoken intellectual from an affluent background. In a working environment in which independent thinking can be viewed as a detriment, someone of Martin’s intellect could be perceived as a player needing to be knocked down a peg.

Martin is a large man. He stands 6 feet 5 inches and weighs 312 pounds, but this issue is bigger than him, whether you believe his story or not.

Martin left the Dolphins Oct. 28. October was National Bullying Prevention month, according to the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights and its National Bullying Prevention Center.

According to stopbullying.gov, Florida is one of 41 states with both detailed anti-bullying laws and policy. Forty-nine states have anti-bullying laws — only Montana does not.

The NFL can’t turn a deaf ear to society.

NFL players need to stand up and recognize hazing and bullying for what it is and recognize that society has evolved. Now, their locker rooms have to evolve along with it.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

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