Like many, I have been riveted by the story coming out of the Miami Dolphins locker room involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. In case you missed it, both are offensive linemen on the team and Martin, a second year player, unexpectedly walked out and checked into a mental health facility, complaining of bullying. Since then, racist and profane messages from Incognito to Martin have surfaced and the spotlight has been turned on behavior in the NFL locker room.
Looking for a literary work that explores bullying, I settled on David Copperfield. The incidents described in David’s boarding school, where student Steerforth bullies a mild-mannered teacher and gets him fired, provides insight into the Incognito-Martin situation. As a bonus, what happened in Miami offers further insights into David Copperfield, especially the problematic relationship between David and Steerforth.
I start first with one of the most interesting commentaries I have encountered on Incognito and Martin, that being a post by Jason Whitlock in ESPN Magazine.
Whitlock is struck by the way that many of the Dolphins have come to the support of Incognito, how some made him an “honorary black” (thereby freeing him up to use the n-word), how they regarded the sensitive Martin (who actually is black) as an outsider, how Incognito and Martin seemed to be friends, how Martin appeared to laugh off Incognito’s racial slurs in the locker room. Some said that Martin should have fought back and there are even reports that the recommendation came from a coach. There was also a story that a coach told Incognito, who was on the team’s leadership council, to do what it took to toughen Martin up.
Some background is useful here. Incognito is a player with a troubled past who was twice kicked off of the University of Nebraska team and then, in the pros, was kicked off the St. Louis Rams for an inability to control his anger. At one point he was declared “the dirtiest player in football.” Martin, on the other hand, is a mixed-race son of two Harvard-trained parents and a Stanford graduate.
In Whitlock’s eyes, the entire culture in the Miami locker room was toxic and a player like Martin should never have been drafted into that organization. Whitlock compares the dynamics to those one would encounter in prison:
Welcome to Incarceration Nation, where the mindset of the Miami Dolphins‘ locker room mirrors the mentality of a maximum-security prison yard and where a wide swath of America believes the nonviolent intellectual needs to adopt the tactics of the barbarian.
I don’t blame Jonathan Martin for walking away from the Dolphins and checking himself into a hospital seeking treatment for emotional distress. The cesspool of insanity that apparently is the Miami locker room would test the mental stability of any sane man.
And further on:
The Dolphins tagged him [Martin] the “Big Weirdo.” The Dolphins held up Richie Incognito as the ultimate role model for offensive linemen. Incognito was a Pro Bowler. He was a member of the six-man leadership council. It makes perfect sense for a kid like Martin to befriend Incognito and try to fit in. I’m sure they were best friends, for a time. I’m sure Incognito offered Martin physical protection on the football field. It’s standard operating procedure for a prison-yard bully to cultivate a relationship that is equal parts fear, love and disrespect. It’s how you turn a guy out and make him grab your belt loop.
Martin was confused. He probably thought the bullying and hazing would pass after his rookie season. He wanted to fit in and make it in the NFL. The paycheck is incredible. He tried to laugh off the abuse and disrespect. He participated in it. He coughed up $15,000 for a trip to Las Vegas he didn’t want to take.
Finally he snapped. He wasn’t raised to be a full-blown idiot. He was raised to think and solve problems with his mind. He was savvy enough to figure out a physical confrontation with Incognito was a no-win situation. It wouldn’t curb Incognito’s behavior or change the culture inside the Miami locker room. It would confirm it. In order to win the fight, Martin would have to physically harm Incognito. It would not be a one-punch or two-punch fight.
In David Copperfield’s boarding school, his older classmate Steerforth lords it over the other boys. Early on, in a move not unlike Incognito calling on Martin to pay $10,000 for a trip to Las Vegas for the other offensive linemen, Steerforth pressures David to surrender all his money and treat everyone else to a sumptuous feast. David, however, does not resemble Martin as much as he does the Incognito teammates who failed to stand up for Martin. Instead, he admires Steerforth for this bullying.
Steerforth’s victim is the sensitive and overworked teacher Mr. Mell. At a moment when Mr. Mell is ineffectively trying to control a rambunctious class, Steerforth deliberately humiliates him. He is able to do so because, given his high social rank, he also has the villainous principal Mr. Creakle on his side. Making use of information he has obtained from David—that Mr. Mell has a relative on public assistance—Steerforth gets him fired.
Here’s an excerpt from the scene. Note that only one schoolmate, the bumbling but wonderful Traddles, does what none of the Dolphins did for Martin: he stands up for him, even though it gets him caned. Here’s the scene:
‘Silence!’ cried Mr. Mell, suddenly rising up, and striking his desk with the book. ‘What does this mean! It’s impossible to bear it. It’s maddening. How can you do it to me, boys?’
It was my book that he struck his desk with; and as I stood beside him, following his eye as it glanced round the room, I saw the boys all stop, some suddenly surprised, some half afraid, and some sorry perhaps.
Steerforth’s place was at the bottom of the school, at the opposite end of the long room. He was lounging with his back against the wall, and his hands in his pockets, and looked at Mr. Mell with his mouth shut up as if he were whistling, when Mr. Mell looked at him.
‘Silence, Mr. Steerforth!’ said Mr. Mell.
‘Silence yourself,’ said Steerforth, turning red. ‘Whom are you talking to?’
‘Sit down,’ said Mr. Mell.
‘Sit down yourself,’ said Steerforth, ‘and mind your business.’
There was a titter, and some applause; but Mr. Mell was so white, that silence immediately succeeded; and one boy, who had darted out behind him to imitate his mother again, changed his mind, and pretended to want a pen mended.
‘If you think, Steerforth,’ said Mr. Mell, ‘that I am not acquainted with the power you can establish over any mind here’— he laid his hand, without considering what he did (as I supposed), upon my head—’or that I have not observed you, within a few minutes, urging your juniors on to every sort of outrage against me, you are mistaken.’
‘I don’t give myself the trouble of thinking at all about you,’ said Steerforth, coolly; ‘so I’m not mistaken, as it happens.’
‘And when you make use of your position of favouritism here, sir,’ pursued Mr. Mell, with his lip trembling very much, ‘to insult a gentleman–‘
‘A what?–where is he?’ said Steerforth.
Here somebody cried out, ‘Shame, J. Steerforth! Too bad!’ It was Traddles; whom Mr. Mell instantly discomfited by bidding him hold his tongue.
-‘To insult one who is not fortunate in life, sir, and who never gave you the least offence, and the many reasons for not insulting whom you are old enough and wise enough to understand,’ said Mr. Mell, with his lips trembling more and more, ‘you commit a mean and base action. You can sit down or stand up as you please, sir. Copperfield, go on.’
‘Young Copperfield,’ said Steerforth, coming forward up the room, ‘stop a bit. I tell you what, Mr. Mell, once for all. When you take the liberty of calling me mean or base, or anything of that sort, you are an impudent beggar. You are always a beggar, you know; but when you do that, you are an impudent beggar.’
And later, after Principal Creakle has intervened and fired Mell:
Once more he [Mell] laid his hand upon my shoulder; and then taking his flute and a few books from his desk, and leaving the key in it for his successor, he went out of the school, with his property under his arm. Mr. Creakle then made a speech, through Tungay, in which he thanked Steerforth for asserting (though perhaps too warmly) the independence and respectability of Salem House; and which he wound up by shaking hands with Steerforth, while we gave three cheers- I did not quite know what for, but I supposed for Steerforth, and so joined in them ardently, though I felt miserable. Mr. Creakle then caned Tommy Traddles for being discovered in tears, instead of cheers, on account of Mr. Mell’s departure; and went back to his sofa, or his bed, or wherever he had come from.
And one more example, this one after Steerforth contends that he will send money to Mr. Mell:
We thought this intention very noble in Steerforth, whose mother was a widow, and rich, and would do almost anything, it was said, that he asked her. We were all extremely glad to see Traddles so put down, and exalted Steerforth to the skies: especially when he told us, as he condescended to do, that what he had done had been done expressly for us, and for our cause; and that he had conferred a great boon upon us by unselfishly doing it. But I must say that when I was going on with a story in the dark that night, Mr. Mell’s old flute seemed more than once to sound mournfully in my ears; and that when at last Steerforth was tired, and I lay down in my bed, I fancied it playing so sorrowfully somewhere, that I was quite wretched.
It is possible to see Whitlock’s “incarceration” mentality at work in Salem House. The boys look up to Steerforth and share his contempt for Mr. Mell’s weakness, probably because it mirrors their own insecurities. David’s life-long adulation for Steerforth can be seen in this light: it’s the relationship with the prison yard bully that Whitworth describes. David is so grateful to Steerforth for favoring him with his friendship that he joins with the other students in applauding him, even though Mr. Mell has been kind to him. David knows that something deeply wring has occurred but overrides his reservations.
David’s adulation will have terrible consequences. For instance, David will speak highly of Steerforth to Peggotty and Ham and introduce him into the family. Eventually Steerforth will seduce and ruin Little Emily and Ham will die. David never does understand what is askew about his friendship with Steerforth. The effects of the jailhouse relationship last forever.
The only way that David is ever able to shake free of the Steerforth influence is through his adult friendship with Traddles, whose worth he comes to fully appreciate. When he is lost in his boarding school confusion, however, he follows the mob and the principal simply enables the situation. The Miami Dolphins were similarly lost and their coaches similarly culpable.