Biff Poggi, the head football coach at Gilman High School MD, has one ironclad rule for his players. No player should ever let another eat lunch by himself. It doesn’t matter whether the other player is a freshman or a senior, a scrub or a star; he is not to be allowed to eat alone. Players are expected to bring the loner to their table or to sit and eat with him. Coach Poggi tells his players that this is as much a part of the program as running or tackling. He wants his players to be inclusive rather than exclusive. He tells them ” The rest of the world will always try to separate you…. by race, by socio-economic status, by education levels, by religion, by neighborhood, by what car you drive… Don’t let it happen.”Coach Poggi preaches empathy which he defines as feeling what the other person feels. He tells his players to live with integrity, seek justice, and encourage the oppressed. He exhorts them always to think in terms of “ What can I do for you ? How can I help you today?”
Gilman’s football program is highly successful but I feel its greatest success is the young men it graduates. With the precepts that have been dinned into them , they will be a success in life , not just on the football field. If I had a kid who was going out for high school football, Biff Poggi is the sort of coach I would wish for. Unfortunately, this sort of coach or leader is increasingly rare. With the single-minded focus on winning at all costs, the emphasis is on ” toughness” and intimidation. Any tactic is okay if it results in the slightest perceived advantage.
I read about the Gilman football program in Season of Life: A Football Star, a Boy, a Journey to Manhood by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jeffrey Marx and I immediately thought of what happened with Jonathan Martin and the Miami Dolphins a few months ago.
Martin, if you remember, was an offensive lineman who was perceived by Dolphins coaches as being too” soft”. On instructions from them, Martin was subjected to intimidation and harassment by his teammates. The worst of his tormentors was Martin’s line mate Richie Incognito, a foul mouthed Neanderthal, who among other things threatened to s–t in Martin’s sister’s mouth. After months of abuse, Martin brought it to the attention of his agent but no action was taken by team management. The hazing continued and one lunch time when Martin sat down at a table with his food, all the other players sitting at the table picked up their plates and walked away from him ( the polar opposite of what happens at Gilman). This proved to be the final straw. Martin quit the team that day and went back to California.
What happened next came as a surprise to me. Public opinion was not for Jonathan Martin , as I had expected. The overwhelming majority of commenters on the message boards felt that Martin should have taken direct action, stood up for himself by brawling with Incognito. This presumably would have proved his ” toughness” and enabled him to bond with his teammates and improve the team’s overall performance. Even when it was revealed that Incognito was acting on the instructions from his coaches, public opinion did not change. What macho guys sitting at their computers did not seem to understand was that Martin was in a lose-lose situation, that he did not have any viable options. If he had engaged in a fistfight with Incognito, it might have resulted in serious injuries to one or the other and resulted in a fine, or even a suspension. If he complained to the coaches, he would be considered a snitch and almost certainly ostracized by his fellow players. Under the circumstances, Martin tried to ride out the hazing until he could not take it any more.
What I just don’t understand is how bullying Martin was expected to make him a better player. An offensive lineman needs to have the confidence that the guy next to him has his back, that they are all one unit playing together. If the guy beside you is constantly mouthing off about the horrible things he is going to do you to your sister, this is going to develop camaraderie ?
In the aftermath of this drama, Martin did not return to the team. Incognito was suspended without pay for four games and did not play for the rest of the season. It’s certain that neither of them will ever play for the Dolphins again. All The turmoil somehow caused the team to come together and they played better finishing close to .500 for the season. One coach was fired but the team’s improved play caused the whole episode to be forgotten.
The only loser in this brouhaha is Jonathan Martin. Incognito will be picked up by some other team desperate for offensive line help but it is doubtful that Martin will ever play in the NFL again. To my surprise, his team mates on the Dolphins mostly blame him for not standing up for himself. He is reviled as a crybaby and a p—y, perceptions that will follow him to any other team that he signs with. His NFL Career is over and I hope he sues the Dolphins and gets a huge settlement. I realize that the precepts that Coach Poggi institutes at Gilman High are too idealistic for the dog-eat-dog NFL but the Dolphins coaches were wrong in siccing Incognito and others on Martin.
One other interesting sidebar: Martin’s parents are highly educated professionals and Martin himself attended Stanford. As such , he is quite different from most pro players who see college only as a stepping stone to the NFL. Such people would consider him ” soft” regardless of the reality. This mirrors the low regard, even contempt, that less educated sections of American society have for those whom they consider ” nerds”.