I was not the most popular kid while growing up on a tiny Grenadines island in the Caribbean. I was tall, skinny and uncoordinated, and finding friends was hard.
On many occasions, I was the subject of name-calling. In many instances, violent confrontations would ensue. For a very long time, I wasn’t sure what it was about me that incurred wrath from others.
I can tell you that the scars I carry will be there forever. What remains from all those years is a lack of trust and self-worth, a hermit disposition and an invisible armor of distrust. Even an NBA career—a fruitful 13-year journey that brought notoriety and financial security—has not been able to eliminate these latent fears.
It has been extremely difficult to ignore what has been going on with the Miami Dolphins over the past few weeks. The issues surrounding Jonathan Martin, Richie Incognito and the rest of the organization have created very necessary conversations when it comes to bullying and hazing.
Before you turn up your nose at another incident of sports gone bad, it’s important to understand that these issues are not only endemic in sports, but also in many facets of our society at large. Let’s not forget the recent controversies surrounding initiation processes in fraternities and marching bands and extreme cases of bullying in schools.
As a former professional athlete, I continue to follow the disturbing events as they evolve daily in Miami. I am shocked, disgusted and outraged by the racist language used by Incognito, who insists that he is not a racist. But the use of the N-word has been—and always will be—problematic to millions of Americans, especially those who understand the horrific context from which this word derived.
As a rookie in the NBA, I remember being forced to take all of my teammates’ stinky uniforms to the equipment manager. I had to bring donuts to shootaround practice. During road trips, I had to take the guys’ bags off the bus and carry them into practice.
There were even occasions when a veteran would order room service and charge it to my room. These incidents seem mundane in today’s sports world, but in the late 1990s/early 2000s they were difficult and annoying as hell, and I resisted them as much as I could.
However, at the end of the day, I succumbed to the bullying and prayed every night for my rookie season to end. Later in my career, I saw incidents where a player’s new car was filled with oily popcorn, or a player was thrown into a tub of ice-cold water.
Today in Miami, what is shocking about this incident is how extreme the level of bullying and hazing is in the locker room. I’ve never seen it escalate to the level it is right now.
Usually when the group tries to cross that invisible line, a veteran player will object and keep everyone in check. The fact that no one in Miami seemed to stand up to what was going on is not only surprising but disturbing.
It demonstrates a severe lack of leadership from multiple levels of the organization. Even more appalling is that the perpetrator was a leader for the team, the very person who should ensure a positive and constructive environment in the locker room.
What happened in Miami is of even greater concern in light of the high incidence of bullying in schools and campaigns to eradicate such behavior. Many young people look up to these players as role models, and their behavior undermines these efforts.
The culture of bullying and hazing, as seen by athletes, is a rite of passage. In many cases, the very acts inflicted on rookies were what many of these veterans underwent when they themselves were rookies. These veterans may even see themselves as upholding the very negative culture they experienced as rookies, and they may think it is their duty to ensure that they carry on these so-called traditions.
The problem with bullying and hazing is that it takes a person who is already in a vulnerable position as a young athlete and humiliates them without any regard to the consequences of the act. This power play is psychologically damaging and can cause long-term harm on the victim’s psyche.
However, many professional organizations (and athletes) see mental health as a weakness, when it should be seen as an opportunity to help players learn how to manage the pressures and challenges of playing at the highest level. The very sad reality is that many teams are devoid of mental health experts to create healthier cultures.
Professional leagues must adopt mental health care as a policy. Until this happens, it is important to bolster organizations with mental health experts who can ensure this type of culture not only shifts but also that athletes—vulnerable and aggressive—have an outlet for their pain and insecurities.
David Stern and the NBA are currently implementing decisive measures to combat bullying and hazing. In addition, we need to create an educational awareness campaign among players about the negative effects of bullying and hazing to help them understand why it needs to stop.
Failure to fundamentally change the culture that exists in locker rooms will sadly lead to more disturbing incidents like that of Miami.