By Abby Dorman and Sam Smith

“Late one night in the first couple months of college, I returned to my room covered in flour, chocolate icing, eggs, and who knows what else. I had just completed what was known as ‘freshman appreciation week’ for the women’s basketball team, which had also involved activities such as being blindfolded and kidnapped by upperclassmen, performing a dance in the cafeteria at dinner, and wearing a sign around campus for one day. As much as the other freshmen and I complained about what we had to do, we all came out of the week feeling more like a part of the team and truly cared for by the upperclassmen, even if they showed it in unconventional ways.”

Stories similar to this one are very common.

Freshmen and rookies are often hazed in a light, comical, slightly inconvenient way. Sometimes, however, it can go too far, and teammates are hazed and abused to the point of emotional and physical trauma. Too often, coaches and authority figures turn a blind eye to this harassment, and students who come forward and bring the abuse to light are mocked even more by their peers. In situations like these, there is no winning for the victims.

A high profile victim of such abuse is Jonathan Martin, offensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins. A little while back, he walked away from the team, citing emotional and physical abuse from teammates. After a little digging, it was discovered that the teammate in question was another lineman, Richie Incognito. Incognito supposedly pushed Martin around like a kid brother and went so far as to leave him voice mail, using racial slurs and death threats in the messages.

The story of Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin brings to light the issue of bullying within professional athletic teams.

Reports of hazing and their potentially harmful results have been around for decades, but they do not always fit into the circle that is true bullying. Hazing, though at times demeaning and dangerously violent, is meant as a means to bring people into a group, while bullying means to exclude. The line is between the two is not exactly clear, because to outsiders, both do not fit into everyday society. But playful hazing and teasing are meant to build camaraderie, to create a bond that helps the team fight through the grind of the season.

“There’s a fine line between bullying and just joking around,” says Hannah, a sophomore basketball player at a Division III college. “But I’d say when a relationship has been developed and there is mutual recognition of friendship, then what might be seen as bullying in another context can be viewed as innocent and fun, a means of creating memories.”

A teammate of Hannah’s shares a similar view. “For me, the line between bullying and friendly teammate teasing has to do with whether or not I believe my teammate really cares about me,” Christina says. “If I know they care about me, they can tease me all they want because I know at the end of the day they have my back 100 percent and their intentions are never to hurt me.”

Generally, athletes tend to share these feelings. The issue arrives when the bond of friendship has not been established and then playful teasing is misunderstood as mocking. Playful hazing is seen instead as bullying. What we have seen from the Incognito-Martin case is that their teammates are rushing to the defense of Incognito. They are quick to call him a great teammate, and even going so far as to say he was Jonathan Martin’s “best friend on the team.”  But judging by Martin’s reaction to certain events, it seems that he did not view Incognito as the friend that everyone else on the team thought he was.

The defense of Incognito makes it appear that the Dolphins viewed Martin as weak. He could not see the difference between team building and bullying. He rejected his teammates’ attempts to bring him closer.

What is being missed, however, is the fact that the line between playful teasing and bullying is very blurry. You can ask ten people where the line is and get nine different answers.

Liz, a high school basketball coach and former college player, views the line as “anything that causes physical harm, or even mental/emotional harm.” She goes on to say “I think the line is different for each person, as God made each of us differently.”

That comment brings up another interesting side of the issue. Considering many high schools and universities around the country are considered religious institutions, there are likely to be different dynamics among teammates at Christian colleges and high schools than those who are in a more secular situation.

An anonymous women’s basketball coach, who has also had experience at the high school level and as a guidance counselor, said that there was “absolutely a difference” between playing and coaching at Christian institution versus non-Christian. She felt more free to be invested in the team because they weren’t pressuring her to do things that she was uncomfortable with.

Moriah, another current Division III player, was enthusiastic about the relationship she has with her Christian teammates.  “The leadership is amazing. the bonding is deeper because not only are you playing and having the same experiences, but they are rooted in Christ. It allows for easier confrontation and for more trust, encouragement, and accountability.”

When it comes to the difference between abusive relationships and friendly hazing, it seems that from the Miami Dolphins to Division III basketball, people are looking for the same ideal characteristics in a teammate. They want to compete with someone who works hard, is encouraging and humble, and has their back on and off the playing field.

Jim Gruenwald, a former Olympic wrestler and current college coach said, “I have had great relationships with both Christian and non-Christian teammates, but the ones with the Christians are different in the sense that they will have your best in mind even in times of individual weakness.”

Camaraderie is best established in a way that encourages people and brings them together rather than discouraging or tearing them down. Christian athletes, then, should embrace their role on teams everywhere, not just by bringing glory to God on the playing field but by embodying the mission of Jesus Christ in the locker room.


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