Ted Wells’ report to the NFL on the Jonathan Martin/Miami Dolphins harassment case presents Martin as an NFL rookie who was tormented both by his teammates and his own inability to fight back. As New York Times columnist Bill Rhoden notes in his column about the report, found here, “The question that repeatedly came to my mind as I read the Wells report is, Why didn’t Martin retaliate? Martin wondered why as well. As Wells wrote, ‘Martin came to view his failure to stand up to his teammates as a personal shortcoming.’”

According to Wells’ report Martin believed his privileged background (his parents met at Harvard as undergraduates) and education hindered his ability to stand up for himself. He blamed “mostly the soft schools” he attended in middle and high school and the “white private school conditioning, turning the other cheek” for reinforcing his self-image as a pushover. Offering tacit support for Martin’s perspective, Martin’s father Gus acknowledged in a text message to his son that he had “punked out many times” when confronted by whites who used the “N” word.

Who among us with African-American sons in predominantly white schools isn’t chilled by Martin’s perspective? And how much are we parents promoting the conditioning he complains about? Many of us have worried about how our energetic and lively boys make their way in schools where their white classmates and teachers may be burdened with perceptions of young black men born of negative media stereotypes: the bad boy, the troublemaker.
We encourage our sons to keep their cool in their response to ignorance or insult; tell them not to give in to an impulse to retaliate with harsher words or fists. We want them to know that they may be perceived differently from their white classmates in and around school and that this is important to remember if trouble arises. We want to shield them from unexpected harm as best we can.

But Martin’s story suggests that these messages can have unintended and terrible consequences. According to the NFL report, Martin reveals to his mother in a text message in late 2013 “I used to get verbally bullied every day in middle school and high school, by kids that are half my size. I would never fight back, just get sad & feel like no one wanted to be my friend, when in fact I was just being socially awkward.”

One can’t know now how much of his memory of these bullying episodes is clouded by his recent troubles. But it is sad and disturbing that he waited all these years to reveal any bullying and its impact on him. And why didn’t his middle and high schools focus on this bullying and alert his parents? His mother flew to Miami as soon as she understood the depth of his mental anguish as a member of the Dolphins, and encouraged him to get professional help. Had she known about this pervasive bullying when he was young (or even his perception of it) you have to believe that she would have tried to get help for him earlier.

We have to do all we can to get our sons to talk to us about their school and social lives, especially when they are in the formative middle and high school years. We also have to spend as much time as we can in their schools, forming our own perspectives of their friends and their life there. And the schools need to see us there, to know that we are focused on all aspects of our sons’ school life. Stories like this make it clear how important it is to do all we can on our own and through the schools to understand what is going on with our boys.

And what if they do tell us they are being bullied? In his column Rhoden recalls that his mother gave him boxing lessons to help him deal with a local bully when he was young. The concept of teaching our sons to stand up for themselves seems instinctively right, but telling them to stand down in the face of trouble feels like a safer way to go these days.

No parent wants to raise a son who is perceived as “soft” because of the difficulties that this can bring him. But for many reasons we also don’t want our sons to start swinging at every slight. As Jonathan Martin’s mother reminded her son in one of their text exchanges, “It takes more strength actually to avoid confrontation.” But we don’t want to have our boys’ self esteem damaged by the feeling that they don’t know how to fight back.

Talk with your son about how he handles disagreements with his friends, classmates, and the mean guys at school. Observe him interacting with his friends, and talk with him about his relationships. Have a casual conversation with him about any interactions that seem troublesome to you. Listen carefully to his perspective. If you sense he is having trouble handling situations, continue to talk with him about them (in a non-judgmental manner) until you can assess whether you need to take further action. Remember that stepping in too soon can give your son (and his peers) the impression that he can’t handle things. But keeping the conversation going at home can give him the platform and the confidence to come to you if he needs help.

Raising confident sons with strong self-esteem is a complicated and continuing concern for all of us, which GCP wants to address. Stay vigilant, stay focused, and stay tuned.