Explaining Jonathan Martin to Our 4 Year-Old

Our son is obsessed with football. We didn’t intend for it to be that way, but he can’t help himself. Every morning while I’m making breakfast, he is playing “horse football.” Not familiar with it? It’s when you use your plastic horses as players, and start by saying, “I wonder if my team is going to win. I hope they do,” and then proceed to ensure your team wins. Anyhow, he is crazed for his team and RGIII, and the sport in general. That’s why watching the story of Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin unfold has been particularly unnerving for me.

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We’ve discussed whether to let our guy play football officially at an early age to save him from overly rough play, concussions, and everything you hear about on the news. But we can’t as predictably protect him from what players are apparently experiencing in locker rooms across the country. Bullying.

As columnists are saying now, the world continues to be high school. Or middle school. How would I ever explain this to our son if he were older? That someone so tough and mighty on the field can be made to feel so powerless when he is with his teammates.

I’ve heard the argument, and believe that part of the reason Martin went public with this is because he understands it’s not acceptable, and he doesn’t have to deal with bullying. Our collective efforts to raise awareness about bullying are sinking into the popular consciousness, perhaps even pro sports stars.

This story, like all stories of bullying, could have been much different had Martin’s teammates taken some kind of stand. But who can blame them? From what we are hearing now, the aggression players have on the field is carrying right on over into the locker room, with no real consequences. These guys are balancing being in a rare class of athletes along with being brothers, fathers, and role models. In many cases, the dynamic they’re experiencing on a professional team reflects their secondary and collegiate teams. Consequences matter, and as a society, we have to do better at building cultures of acceptance and brother/sisterhood, especially when we’re talking about athletes who occupy status to which many of our kids aspire.

When our kids are younger, and even as they grow up, one of the best ways we can build their knowledge about bullying, empathy, and willingness to stand up for themselves and others is through reading. Here is a list of 13 books we recommend at Zoobean to start the conversation early and often, so that we continue to build a culture of kindness and confidence in all of our kids, that stays with them into adulthood.