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.
But the real-life story we’ve seen being played out by Martin is going against the stereotype.
Martin is 6 feet 5 and weighs 312 pounds. Never mind that the man who bullied him, Incognito, is nearly his equal in size at 6 feet 3 and 319 pounds. Martin is 7 inches taller than the average black American male (5 feet 10). His BMI, or body mass index, according to calculations, puts him in the 98th percentile for American men.
Add to that, Incognito is white. If I’m putting my money on a fair fight between Martin and Incognito, I’ve got Martin, the guy who was called a half-n—ger and told that his mother would get slapped. Because if I were Martin’s size, this is what I’d be saying:
No white boy would be able to bully me. I’d let them hands fly. Even if I had it enough of Incognito’s shenanigans and the fratlike culture of the Dolphins’ locker room, someone would feel some pain before I left the team. If I’m that big, no one is bullying me. I’m the bully.
But I am a mere 6 feet tall and weigh 175 pounds, so there’s no shame if I choose to back away from a physical confrontation. The ridicule isn’t as bad for me as it is for someone like Marlon Walker.
Walker is 6 feet 8 and weighs 350 pounds. He’s not a football player; he’s a journalist, but he knows that his size carries with it a certain stigma. “People tell me, because I’m 6 feet 8, I’m going to be intimidating,” says Walker, a reporter at the Detroit Free Press. “I tell them that’s fine, but I wish it wasn’t the first thing they think of when they see me coming.”
Ian Oglesby is 6 feet 4 and 225 pounds. He is not a football player; he’s a corrections officer at a Level 3 security prison in California, as well as a city councilman in Seaside, Calif. I joke with people that the first time my mother introduced me to him, I was mad that the man who would eventually become my stepdad was too big for me to beat up by myself. If I ever needed to protect her against him, I would need either backup or a weapon.
But my stepdad—as large a presence as he is, and as dangerous an occupation as he has—is one of the least threatening people I know. The minute I shook his hand, I knew I had nothing to worry about. Part of that is because he’s aware of the perceptions about his size.
“Coming from a bigger person, tone is important,” he says. That’s one reason he doesn’t think Martin handled things the wrong way. “Standing up for yourself is not beating the guy up,” he says.
Benjamin Nwachukwu is 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 260 pounds. He’s not a football player; he’s a banker, but people will sooner ask him what position he plays on a field than what position he holds on Wall Street. Such an association doesn’t bother him as much as another association he frequently gets.
“Whenever I go out,” says Nwachukwu, “everyone assumes I’m the bouncer. I can't stand that.” Knowing that people perceive him a certain way not only because of his complexion but also because of his size, Nwachukwu has to be mindful of how he conducts himself. Even in a situation where fighting would seem understandable, it’s not the most feasible option for him. “With big black men being viewed as dangerous, I have to be overly cautious with the things I do and say,” he says. “There are always eyes watching.”
All eyes have been watching Martin ever since he chose to turn the other cheek when faced with Incognito’s threat and instead did something that is arguably more courageous: According to ESPN, he checked himself into a hospital because of emotional distress.
Men of average height and weight are quick to look at Martin’s actions and say to anyone who is listening, “If I were his size, if I were his weight, I’d smack someone like Incognito up against his head.” But what we don’t realize is that Martin is bigger than all of us—not because of his physical attributes but because of his mental fortitude to walk away and not do what everyone thinks a big black man would do.
Jozen Cummings is a contributing editor at The Root. His column, His Side, brings us men's perspectives on the latest events in news and pop culture. He is a writer for the New York Post, where he covers the blind date column, Meet Market, and writes for his own blog, Until I Get Married. Follow him on Twitter. He can be reached at jozenc@untilIgetmarried.com.
Jozen Cummings is the author and creator of the popular relationship blog Until I Get Married, which is currently in development for a television series with Warner Bros. He also hosts a weekly podcast with WNYC about Empire called Empire Afterparty, is a contributor at VerySmartBrothas.com and works at Twitter as an editorial curator. Follow him on Twitter.