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National Columnist

Someone you'd least expect can be bullied -- even a pro athlete

Was Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin bullied by teammates? (USATSI)
Was Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin bullied by teammates? (USATSI)

Anyone can be bullied. Anyone. Was Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin bullied? Is that why he has taken a leave of absence from the team amid reports that, yes, he was bullied by teammates? I don't know that.

But I know this: Jonathan Martin could be bullied. Anyone could be bullied, which is why this story -- in its infancy at the moment, a story that could go in a variety of directions or even fizzle out -- matters even though the facts aren't all in. Even if the facts never come in. Even if we never find out why Martin left the team, even if he returns soon and all Martin and the team ever say is that it was a "personal issue" and that everyone is "moving forward," this is an important conversation to have -- and the Jonathan Martin story has given us a reason to have it.

So have it. Talk about it with your kid, even if your kid is 6-foot-5 and 312 pounds, which is how big Jonathan Martin is. Anyone can be bullied, and that means the biggest of us, the strongest of us, the smartest of us. I was none of those things as a kid, but I was pretty much a bookworm at Oxford (Miss.) Elementary and I remember being teased -- bullied -- by other kids when Ms. Parker announced the names of the kids who had made an 'A' on a math test. Ms. Parker thought she was lifting us up, and she was, but the other kids used that opportunity to beat some of us down. So I asked her to stop calling my name when I made an 'A'. I didn't need the pat on the back. Not if it meant a verbal kick in the rear end.

In hindsight that wasn't a big deal. It wasn't scarring, which means I was lucky. Because bullying can be scarring, hurtful, even deadly. Overstatement? Of course not. Suicide from bullying is so prevalent these days that there's a word for it: bullycide. This stuff hurts, and victims are vulnerable, and some of them can think of just one way out.

And a victim can be anyone, even a professional football player. We don't know about Jonathan Martin, but we do know about New York Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara. He's the guy hulking defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul picked up like a sack of oats last August, threw over his shoulder and carried to a tub of ice water, where Pierre-Paul dumped Amukamara. There was video of it, and on the video Amukamara is clearly not having a good time as Pierre-Paul parades him around the locker room while teammates chant "cold tub, cold tub." When he climbs out of the tub, Amukamara wears a look of utter defeat. That wasn't camaraderie or horseplay. That was bullying.

It can happen to almost anyone, because almost all of us are vulnerable to someone. Smaller people are vulnerable to bigger ones. Unpopular people are vulnerable to those with more social cachet. One is vulnerable to many. A group can gang up on one person, even one huge person, and reduce that person to despair. Is that what happened in the lunch room at Dolphins camp with Jonathan Martin? I don't know that. Someday maybe we'll find out.

Meantime, believe this: A person doesn't have to be weak to be the victim of bullying. In fact, a lot of the time, it's the exact opposite. Bullies go after the best of us. They go after the smart people, the nice people, the considerate people. They go after the biggest kid, like ex-Baylor star Brittney Griner, who says classmates bullied her as a kid.

Bullies can be like hyenas going after a lion, gathering in a pack and bringing down a much stronger -- a much better -- person simply because they can. Bullies do what they do because they feel badly about themselves. Sympathy for bullies? Not me. Not today. Not as the father of a son who was bullied several years ago by two bigger boys in seventh grade. I learned those kids' names. I found out who their fathers were. I called the principal and asked him to take care of it, and he did. Had the bullying continued? Something would have happened to stop it. Don't know what. Glad it didn't.

Bullies are the worst. Victims? You're not the weakest of us.

But you might be the best of us.

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