By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) The annual free agency feeding frenzy was unleashed on every aspect of our collective football consciousness by the NFL on Tuesday. But it was a minor personnel move that may not have much of an impact on an individual team that moved the league another step in a positive direction.
The Miami Dolphins traded Jonathan Martin to the San Francisco 49ers for an undisclosed pick in 2015 (reportedly a seventh-rounder if he is on the Niners' 53-man roster to open the season). Martin is now reunited with his college coach at Stanford, Jim Harbaugh. Normally an offensive lineman picked in the second round who has played in just 23 career games getting traded for a conditional pick is not all that newsworthy — and there are many reading this and other stories about the Martin trade and rushing to comments sections to put in all caps "WHY IS THIS NEWS?!?!"
It's news because of the fact that some out there wish it was not so as not to confront their prejudices. It's news because the juggernaut sports league of the country that has long been associated with a petty macho misogynistic, homophobic and alpha dog '80s comedy shtick has added to a list of recent actions dispelling a lot of that toxic image. It's news because I deal with kids every day who have been bullied and abused in relative secrecy and are or were afraid to speak up because they thought it would negatively affect their futures.
Martin had that same fear for his future at one time, but he eventually decided that the hell that was the present was enough. He sought help, received it and did what he could to hold proper parties responsible. One of several unfortunate questions that almost immediately (and pretty ignorantly) arose from the story of former Dolphin Richie Incognito bullying and tormenting his former teammate was weather Martin could play pro football again (and ditto for Incognito, but for different reasons). The question rarely was framed in consideration of Martin's ability to play, but rather whether coaches, teammates and a locker room could accept him. He had shown some strange weakness not becoming of a burly tackle football man, remember.
But what some pig-headedly saw as weakness, Harbaugh saw as strength. As quoted in the Wells Report, the study the league commissioned to investigate the hazing in Miami during Martin's time there:
"(Harbaugh) 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," Wells' report explained. "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.
"Although initially quiet, he became a vocal leader on the team by his final year. Coach Harbaugh emphasized that he never doubted Martin's physical or mental toughness, and he believes that Martin can continue to have a successful career in the NFL. Coach Harbaugh also said that the atmosphere in the Stanford locker room, in his view, was not materially different from that of the San Francisco 49ers' locker room."
And this is the Jim Harbaugh who is often caricatured as crazy, screaming madman, but he's certainly not a monster like Incognito, and his coaching track record has proved him worthy enough of the benefit of the doubt when it comes to personnel decisions.
Yes, perhaps Martin is only in a seemingly better situation now because his new team happens to be run by his former college coach. Maybe no other team, including the Dolphins, wanted any part of him in 2014.
But what this also shows is that for future football players, other athletes and victims of abuse masked as "tough love" everywhere is that standing up for yourself, demanding to be treated professionally, refusing to continue a cycle of abuse — what bullies and their defenders call "being a wuss", among other creative things — won't get you blackballed if you have ability and desire to succeed in whatever you're pursuing. And Martin does.
He knows that while Harbaugh and he have a relationship, no coach is in the business of giving away honorary roster spots. Martin's the favorite for the Niners' swing tackle spot, but he is no lock to make the team. Training camp will determine if a tiny gamble was worth it.
And odds are there will be no training camp for Incognito, oddly enough, especially after he checked himself into a mental health facility following some reportedly very bizarre behavior. Are those who criticized Martin's masculinity for seeking help also now doing so regarding his former teammate? Doubtful. Nor should they.
Incognito is a person who needs help, both medically and in understanding what he did was wrong, and I hope he is getting it and can live a life going forward free of whatever impairments made him such a savage person for so long.
Jonathan Martin may not be successful on the football field going forward, but now after the big tents of "guy code" and bullying discussion and what really makes an athlete tough debate from this circus of a story have been taken down, packed up and moved to the next scandal, his services are in demand for the time being, while those of a guy who embodied all the negative stereotypes about football are not.
That says something about what the business of the NFL considers to be toughness.
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