Despite overtones that it has good intentions, the NFL isn’t ready to become a professional organization, if you read the recently-released “Wells Report” concerning the case of workplace bullying of former Miami Dolphin offensive lineman Jonathan Martin.
For the non-sports fan, the controversy leading to this report began when Martin walked out of the team’s training facility Oct. 28 and sought psychiatric help for depression and suicidal tendencies, later to be discovered as resulting from over a season’s worth of social ostracism and intentional psychological torment from three of his fellow linemen.
The report, in graphic and vulgar detail, shows that the behavior demonstrated by the three players – Richie Incognito (designated as the leader), John Jerry and Mike Pouncey – went far and beyond what any person should say or treat a fellow human being – friend or enemy. If you want to learn how to bully a person mentally, the examples detailed in the report double as a how-to textbook.
The report correctly condemns Incognito in his leadership role as well as Pouncey and Jerry in their compliant roles.
From the report: We find that the harassment of Martin bears many hallmarks of a classic case of bullying, where persons who are in a position of power harass the less powerful. It may seem odd to some that Martin, a professional football player with imposing physical stature, could be described as a victim of bullying or harassment, but even big, strong athletes are not immune from vulnerability to abusive behavior.
The relevant literature on bullying indicates that bullies typically choose victims who are different from them, who have low self-esteem or who lack the skills to deal with conflict.
A typical victim is a person who is unlikely to push back when victimized. Studies show that bullying adversely affects the target’s physical and mental health —it has been shown to lead to depression, stress, anxiety, mood swings and suicide
So far, so good. When an employee of a company intentionally targets and subsequently torments a co-worker to such a point, it is seemingly common sense that player be scrutinized and his actions condemned in such a fashion.
Initially, Incognito was suspended by the team. Originally declared to be an “indefinite” suspension, the team quietly lifted Incognito’s ban Feb. 5 of this year – during the week after the Super Bowl when all the headlines were focused on the championship win by the Seattle Seahawks.
While the condemnation of Incognito, Pouncey and Jerry are easily commendable, concerns begin with the attitude the Wells Report made towards of Offensive Line Coach Jim Turner, who set the proper environment for Incognito, Pouncey and Jerry to isolate Martin. Under his tenure, Turner established was referred to as a “Judas Code,” which strictly discouraged any player on the offensive line from betraying his fellow linemen
The most condemning piece of Turner from the report came as it reviewed numerous texts from Turner to Martin – as he was seeking psychiatric help to deal with the mental damages inflicted by Incognito – to defend Incognito. Think about that. Obviously, from the nature of Turner’s texts, ordering the hospitalized Martin to “FIX THIS NOW” (yes, he used all caps), Turner didn’t think it through that the victim of psychological torment shouldn’t be the one held responsible when the tormentor gets in trouble for his tormenting.
It also revealed that Martin wasn’t the only target of unprofessional behavior. (similar behavior towards a mentioned “Player A” – later revealed to be now-Carolina Panther Andrew McDonald – was also included but stopped short of concluding that behavior led to either a decline in mental state or his departure from the team a week before Martin departed) With the inclusion of behaviors towards off-field personnel, the report demonstrated that enforcement of the official team policy concerning personal respect was all but flat-out ignored.
The report travels up the Dolphins’ organizational chain of command, chronicling that they were at least passively aware of the situation, and at most intentionally ignorant. This was highlighted by now-former General Manager Jeff Ireland’s statement that Martin “should’ve just punched Incognito in the face.”
On the surface, this seems optimistic. We wish for victims to defend themselves. But ultimately, this stance was naïve, counterproductive and sincerely unprofessional.
Or maybe not, according to the report.
“We also understand that context matters. We accept that the communications of young, brash, highly competitive football players often are vulgar and aggressive, and that these players never expected their private communications with each other to be made public. We did not approach this assignment expecting to discover behavior that society might anticipate in, say, an accounting firm or a law office. For better or worse, profanity is an accepted fact of life in competitive sports, and professional athletes commonly indulge in conduct inappropriate in other social settings,” the reports says.
“For Better or Worse?” Let’s go with “worse.” Acknowledging the job description of a NFL player is a physical one, the social aspects should have little – if any – differential from the accounting or legal firms the report cites as being separate from.
One of the social ills plaguing sports has been the apologetic culture towards athlete behavior on and off the field. Up until 2010, concussions were long regarded not as a tragic misgiving of the game, but lauded as a result of “hard-hitting football,” and a sign of toughness by the deliverer and softness of the concussed.
Off the field, cultural mores have been different for athletes. A perfect case would be Incognito himself. After a college career marred by on and off-field incidents resulting in arrests and repeated counseling, he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams, where more controversy followed, as he was named “dirtiest Player in the NFL” in a 2009 player poll.
After another round of counseling following the 2009 season, Incognito temporarily cleaned up his act until the arrival of Martin. Coincidentally, the initial contract Incognito signed with the Dolphins in 2010 included a “character clause,” a one-strike policy that would terminate the deal should Incognito face any off-field troubles.
Despite the clause in his contract being still effective when he signed a subsequent three-year deal, incidents began occurring off the field, but team investigations were left “unresolved.” In short, one could easily accuse the team of covering up Incognito’s bad behavior instead of invoking the contractual obligation to release him, therefore enabling him to continue regressing into the same anti-social behavior on and off the field that led to the clause in the first place.
Yet, the report failed to hold the team directly responsible. It did not cite Turner, who fostered the abusive environment for any responsibility for the decline of Martin’s mental health. Despite saying the official team rules concerning behavioral decorum weren’t “fully appreciated,” they concluded the organization from Head Coach Joe Philbin to Owner Stephen Ross, was “unaware of any wrongdoing.” However, it was also documented that in 2012, as Incognito’s questionable behavior was re-emerging, Ireland and Assistant General Manager Brian Gaine directly ordered Incognito to “make Martin tougher.” Ireland was dismissed following the season, and while there is no doubt the Martin-Incognito case played a factor, his dismissal was ultimately attributed to the Dolphin’s only having one winning season under his tenure.
Sadly, as the story emerged, public support emerged for Incognito more than Martin, with defenders of Incognito’s actions naively claiming that the locker room deserved special rules. And with the report that acquitted Dolphins’ upper management as well as excusing the existence of the behavior in the first place as merely the “accepted way of life” within the sport in general, it seems there is no real call for a change that plagues athletic culture within society.
Despite what former NBA star Charles Barkley said in his famous ad, athletes are role models. When aspiring athletes see success on the field, they too-easily assume off-field lifestyle, attitudes and behaviors are also examples to follow, especially when they are passively encouraged by the lack of rule enforcement in the name of on-field glory for the team and fans.
Defenders of Incognito and players who use unnecessary, injurious violence on the field make a case that the players and the team belong to are performing a higher public service to the fans that support them. Comparisons are drawn between athletes and soldiers and/or public safety forces. Yet, in recent years, even the military has adopted strict anti-hazing policies. The Wells Report also concludes by suggesting a new set of guidelines for workplace harassment, but by poisoning it by citing the actual unprofessional behavior is a tolerable part of the work environment, any new guidelines and rules will be empty overtures that will not prevent future issues like last season in Miami.
There is absolutely no logical way profane language, personal insults within the workplace, and selective rule enforcement can be matched with the word “professional,” even if it has been a tradition or not. In fact, the reported exoneration of this culture that encouraged Incognito on every level is also an insult to the athletes who can and do maintain a truly professional standard on and off the field. While the job description may not be identical to that of a professional office environment, the standards of being a mature citizen and responsible co-worker should never be sacrificed.
Contributor: John Stebbins
John Stebbins is a Cleveland-area native who received a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1998 from Bowling Green State University. After a couple years reporting in the print industry, he took some time off before occasionally contributing to various websites.
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