The stupidest word in sports is “distraction,” and it has been for years. It is overused, almost meaningless, and largely serves as an alibi for whatever failing a team has at any given moment.
And so it is for Jonathan Martin, the much-discussed tackle of the Miami Dolphins who was the center of a national debate about bullying in the workplace, who is now about to be part of the Cirque du Soleil that is the San Francisco 49ers.
He still must pass a physical and any number of chats with the 49ers brass about his fitness to continue at football after the psychological muggings in Miami, but assuming he passes them, he will become a distraction for the 49ers.
[MAIOCCO: 49ers acquire Jonathan Martin from Dolphins]
Except that he won’t be one at all for five very good reasons:
1) He isn’t really coming in as a starter unless the 49ers are planning to shed themselves of either Joe Staley or Anthony Davis.
2) Because distractions are often a fraud perpetrated by teams who need to blame something for something unrelated.
3) Because Martin’s arrival and acclimatization will be a two-day story, tops, first at his presser and then at the start of the first of San Francisco’s nine or 13 OTAs (overtly tedious activities).
4) San Francisco is so utterly quarterback-centric that the topic du jour every day is Colin Kaepernick.
5) And this is the killer, James Joseph Harbaugh.
Next to all that, Martin is an offensive tackle – which we can only presume is the whole idea of him coming back to football.
In this way, Martin is a bit like Jason Collins, the Brooklyn Nets role player who because the first openly gay player in a major American team sport – a phrase that dismisses other sports and other openly gay athletes in a number of equally noble yet different pursuits.
Collins made it clear that his sexuality was secondary for public purposes to his basketball job, and so far he has adhered to that policy. Martin, who was both supported and savaged for his role as victim and helpless co-conspirator in his own bullying in Miami, is likely to desire the same role in San Francisco.
There may be something to be said about the fact that both men went to Stanford, a place where expression is more valued than at other schools, but that may be more circumstantial than dispositive. But while Collins was vouched for by his teammates and head coach in Brooklyn because he had walked the walk for more than a decade in the NBA, Martin’s collegiate background mattered a good deal because it was a background he shared with Harbaugh.
Ahh, yes. Harbaugh. Martin may become a useful if involuntary spokesman for bullying, but in the Bay Area, his travails will take a back seat to the daily dramas surrounding Harbaugh and his future whereabouts. And when people tire of that subject, they will move on to Kaepernick’s ongoing development (or lack thereof) as an elite quarterback.
And eventually, people will move past Martin, except in those moments when his block either springs Frank Gore or lack thereof causes harm to Kaepernick and brings the 49ers that much closer to a dreaded Blaine Gabbert moment.
[MAIOCCO: Gabbert serves as constant reminder for Kaepernick]
I mean, while we’re on the subject of distractions, the trade that brings Gabbert to San Francisco brought some head-scratching and Internet vitriol, but as you could see, that lasted about six hours.
So it will be with Martin. Even Chris Culliver’s anti-gay ramblings at the Super Bowl a year ago really lasted only a couple of weeks, and that is one of the nation’s most prominent areas for gay rights and the gay lifestyle. Such is the crushing power of football that it eventually trumps all sidebars, even those of considerable cultural or socio-political import.
And besides, we’ve got Harbaugh. He’ll serve as a much better distraction for us than Jonathan Martin or Blaine Gabbert ever could, and that’s the key to any good distraction – the distracted parties are almost always the people who gripe most about it.