When Big Men Refuse to Fight

His Side: Don’t accuse Miami Dolphin Jonathan Martin of cowardice. It took courage to walk away.

Jonathan Martin of the Miami Dolphins talks ot the media after the rookie minicamp on May 4, 2012 at the Miami Dolphins training facility in Davie, Fla.

Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

This week’s dustup between former teammates Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito and the Miami Dolphins organization has been woven into a web of controversy. Incognito, the white veteran leader on the Dolphins, was put in charge of toughening up Martin, a black second-year guard out of Stanford who played tackle to Incognito’s guard on the offensive line.

That meant Incognito, considered by some teammates to be an “honorary black,” was given full license to haze Martin, and he did so ruthlessly. Allegations range from leaving threatening, racist-laden voice mails on Martin’s phone to making him fund a Las Vegas trip for the veterans, in which Martin coughed up $15,000 but didn’t attend.

And when Martin had had enough, what did he choose to do? Walk away, leaving behind whatever tough-guy reputation he had left and a nice-sized paycheck. To hear some men tell it, that’s not what a real man does.

Men are supposed to fight, especially men of Martin’s stature. After all, you don’t have to be an active participant in a violent sport to know that some things are just better handled with fists instead of brains.

And ordinary men of average height and average weight have been quick to levy criticism against Martin. Partly because he’s a football player. They ask how a man whose job it is to square up against another man attempting to barrel him over with brute force wouldn’t defend himself with some of that same brutality.

But I have a feeling that the other reason some of us are confused about Martin’s actions—walking away from a fight instead of walking into one—is his size.

We’ve been taught—and Hollywood has sold us on this idea—that the Jonathan Martins of the world don’t get bullied. They are the bully.

In the make-believe world of movies, Tony Todd played the Candyman in the horror-movie franchise of the same name. His character killed people using a hook, but the hook wasn’t as scary as Todd himself, who stands a hulking 6 feet 5. 

Tommy “Tiny” Lister was Deebo in the movie Friday, one of the most notorious bullies in movie history. At 6 feet 5 and 300 pounds, Lister fit the image of a bully quite nicely. And the ironic thing is, Craig, the good guy who would eventually take down Deebo in a David-and-Goliath-like street fight, was played by Ice Cube, who once played a bully himself of sorts in the movie Boyz N the Hood. But at 5 feet 8, he was a bully with a gun.

Remember The Green Mile, in which Michael Clarke Duncan played John Coffey, a wrongfully convicted murderer on death row? Duncan stood 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 360 pounds. The people who cast him probably knew there would be nothing more dramatic than a man that size actually being innocent and a harmless guy who would hurt no one.