NFL Bullying: Boys Will Be Boys?

How bad could things be for Jonathan Martin? The 24-year-old received a signing bonus of $1,919,468 from the Miami Dolphins of the National Football League last year after leaving Stanford as a second round draft pick. He is guaranteed his entire 2013 salary of $479,867. He is one of approximately 1,800 individuals fortunate enough to be on an NFL roster. He is a starting offensive tackle, one of the most lucrative positions in all of professional football. Considering that the franchise tag for an NFL offensive lineman is $9,660,000 in 2013, it is reasonable to think that the second-year player could be looking at a $10 million per year when his rookie contract expires after the end of the 2015 season. As Timbuk3 would say, “His future’s so bright, he’s gotta wear shades!”

Then why did the 6’5”, 312 lb. Martin — who was graded by ESPN’s draft expert, Mike Mayock, as a “[f]irst-round talent” — walk away from the Dolphins practice facility on October 28 after being the subject of a prank in the Dolphins’ locker room, and go on the non-football injury list? Some sources even have Martin receiving professional treatment for emotional problems.

Martin’s biography suggests that he may be a bit more refined than most of his teammates and fellow NFL players. A Los Angeles native, Martin turned down the opportunity to be the first-ever fourth-generation African-American family member to attend Harvard in order to play football and major in the classics at Stanford University, arguably the best academic institution among the top of NCAA Division I Football teams. His father, Gus Martin, and his mother, Jane Howard-Martin, both graduated from Harvard. Martin’s great-grandfather on his mother’s side, John Fitzgerald, graduated from Harvard in 1924 and knew W. E. B. DuBois. The Martins still believe that there is a chance that Jonathan will ultimately keep family tradition alive by attending Harvard Law School to pursue his goal of being a trial attorney.

On October 28, Martin was the last offensive linemen to sit at a particular table, and once Martin sat down, his teammates rose to leave Martin alone at the table. This purportedly caused Martin to slam his tray and storm out of the Dolphin’s practice facility and ultimately miss the Dolphins’ 22-20 overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Apparently, this “prank” was just the final straw in a series of hazing and torment that Martin had to endure from his teammates since joining the NFL. ESPN is reporting that that one of the significant allegations being reviewed is that Miami Dolphins Pro Bowl guard Richie Incognito pressured Martin into contributing $15,000 to help finance a trip to Las Vegas by some Dolphins last summer, even though Martin preferred not to travel with the group. Although Martin did not join in on the trip to Vegas, fearing the consequences if he did not hand over the money, Martin simply gave Incognito the $15,000. Why a player who made approximately $3.7 million in 2012 — one year after receiving a $3.25 million signing bonus — needed to shake down a rookie for $15,000 remains unexplained.

Martin may not be the only NFL player intimidated by Incognito. A player poll in the Sporting News before the 2012 season voted the 6’3”, 319 lb. Incognito the second-dirtiest player in the NFL. The eighth-year guard has been fined $95,000 by the NFL over the course of his career. The intimidation of Martin started early in his rookie season training camp, as captured on the 2012 season of HBO’s Hard Knocks. In the show’s third episode, it was revealed that Martin’s nickname among his Dolphin teammates is “Big Weirdo.” According to Fox NFL reporter Alex Marvez, “a source told FOX Sports that Martin’s frustration stemmed from one-and-a-half seasons of bullying and taunting from some teammates that had gone beyond the player hazing that sometimes occurs in NFL locker rooms.” Fox Sports also reported that Martin’s hazing included personal insults and insults about his family.

Whatever happened in the Dolphins’ locker room was enough for a player that had started in 23 consecutive NFL games to walk away from the game. ESPN is reporting that one source said there are other instances of Incognito’s intimidation of Martin, captured in text messages and at least one demeaning voice mail. According to this ESPN source, some of the messages were racially charged in nature. The alleged racial aspect of the communication was first reported by Fox Sports. If these allegations regarding Incognito are substantiated, the situation is made even more troubling since Incognito has been a part of the Dolphins’ six-player leadership council. Theoretically, it is these clubhouse leaders that would be expected to police intra-player activity to prevent joking from getting out of hand.

After a thrilling overtime victory over the Bengals that ended on a safety, Dolphins coach Joe Philbin addressed the Martin reports, noting that Martin “has been excused with a non-football illness.” Under NFL rules, a team may choose to pay or not pay a player designated with a non-football injury. While the Dolphins have not said that they are paying Martin while he is receiving treatment, it is noted that his contract guarantees his 2013 salary. Philbin issued the following statement:

I’m aware of this report, and I can say without question that we emphasize a culture of team first, accountability, and respect for one another …  Any behavior that deviates from that is inconsistent with the values of our organization … This is something that we take very seriously. It will not be tolerated.

However, Marvez reported that Dolphins’ coaches and officials must have been aware of the bullying that the team’s starting left tackle was forced to endure over the last season and a half.

As reports of Incognito’s involvement in the bullying of Martin were being reported this weekend, Incognito (@68INCOGNITO) took to Twitter early Sunday, stating that he wants his “name cleared.” He called the reports “false speculation” and “slander,” and said ESPN was hiding behind sources “who are not man enough to put their name behind the BS you report.” Curiously, in the course of denying his part in any bullying of Martin, one of Incognito’s tweets seemed to threaten ESPN NFL reporter Adam Schefter:

@AdamSchefter Enough is enough If you or any of the agents you sound off for have a problem with me, you know where to find me #BRINGIT

Representatives for Martin contacted the Dolphins on Sunday regarding allegations of harassment and player misconduct. In response, the Dolphins suspended Incognito, their starting guard, for conduct detrimental to the team. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, a voicemail left by Incognito on Martin’s phone was the smoking gun. “They went over the transcripts of one voicemail last night, and made the determination to suspend Richie Incognito immediately,” Schefter said. ESPN is reporting that Incognito is being investigated by the Dolphins, the NFL, and the NFL Players Association for harassment of Jonathan Martin. In the statement announcing Incognito’s suspension, the Dolphins added:

[W]e believe in maintaining a culture of respect for one another and as a result we believe this decision is in the best interest of the organization at this time. As we noted earlier, we reached out to the NFL to conduct an objective and thorough review. We will continue to work with the league on this matter.

Schefter has since reported that a Dolphins official said that Incognito, who is scheduled to be a free agent after this season, is “done” with the Miami organization.

While there were reports that Martin communicated with Incognito earlier in the week indicating he did not hold Incognito responsible for his absence, according to ESPN’s sources, Martin’s representatives maintain the text messages were sent out of fear of retribution.

The Dolphins should know better about their duty as an employer to protect its employees from harassment. In 1994, Dolphins linebacker Bryan Cox sued over being forced to play in a “racially hostile environment” during a Bills-Dolphins game in Orchard Park, N.Y., and did little to defuse the situation. Cox, who gave Bills fans a double middle finger salute, claims that he was taunted with racist slurs by fans in Buffalo during the 1993 season. In that suit, Cox claimed that when he entered Rich Stadium at the start of a game on September 23, 1993, several fans subjected him to an intense barrage of verbal abuse, much of which was based on race, including shouts of “n—-r,” “monkey,” “we will kill you,” and more. Apparently, one fan had rigged up a “black dummy” with Cox’s number and the words “Wanted Dead” on it, and then hung the dummy on a noose.

Cox’s suit asked the league to “beef up security” and weed out drunks. Coincidentally or not, the NFL distributed revised safety guidelines requiring, among other things, that teams remove from the stadiums fans who take part in “racial taunts” of NFL players.

While there is no federal law that prohibits workplace bullying, the acts of hazing, teasing, pranking, name-calling, insulting, and taunting can amount to the establishment of a hostile environment or harassment. If it is found that this conduct is motivated by an employee’s race, gender, age, nationality, or disability, the employer may be liable for unlawful discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended. ESPN has confirmed with multiple sources that the following is a transcript of a voice message Incognito left for Martin in April 2013:

Hey, wassup, you half n—– piece of s—. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] s— in your f—— mouth. [I’m going to] slap your f—— mouth. [I’m going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. F— you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.

According to ESPN, sources are saying that the use of these racial epithets are terms Incognito used over time and were not isolated incidents. If the allegations of racially charged hostile messages left by Incognito for Martin are true, the Dolphins may face liability for race discrimination, especially if the team was aware of Incognito’s abusive behavior and allowed it to continue.

Sources also say Martin received a series of texts that include derogatory terms referring to the female anatomy and sexual orientation. While there is no federal law that prohibits workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation currently, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would ban discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation and gender identity will see action on the Senate floor, as early as next week, according to a Senate Democratic leadership aide. The act has already passed out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee by a vote of 15-7, including three Republican “yes” votes. It is not clear if the act has enough support to overcome a filibuster, and even if it passes the Senate, it must then get through the Republican-controlled House. Many states, including New York, where the NFL is headquartered, have adopted laws that prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of an individual’s sexual orientation. However, Florida, home of the Dolphins, does not have a law prohibiting discrimination or harassment based on an individual’s sexual orientation or identity.

Depending on what the facts reveal, the Dolphins may not face legal liability for the team’s treatment of Martin, one of its starting tackles, but this locker room discord could ultimately harm the Dolphins performance on the field. It may be the case that rookies of every race, color, and creed are subject to the same abuse by Incognito and other veteran Dolphins. Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald is reporting that this treatment seems to be systemic in the Miami locker room. According to Beasley, Dolphin veterans are using rookies as ATM machines, — one younger player was handed a $30,000 tab from a team dinner. Beasley has retweeted the following post from Dolphins defensive lineman Jared Odrick (@JaredOdrick98): “Everything tastes better when rookies pay for it.”

While rookie hazing is nothing new in the NFL, these types of reports suggest it may be dramatically out of hand in Miami, where a member of the player leadership council is leading the abuse and fleecing of Dolphin rookies. It sounds like the Dolphins’ veterans are engaged in a grown-up form of stealing the rookies’ milk money. While conduct of this nature may have been acceptable in NFL locker rooms 20 years ago, it is clearly intolerable in 2013, even in a macho, high-testosterone workplace like the NFL. No “man code” demands a player to accept racial slurs, threats, or threats against his family. Years ago, a player in Martin’s situation would have had no alternative but to physically attack his harasser in order to protect his right to earn a living playing football. That is no longer the case.

The Dolphins will likely encounter the hidden cost of discrimination, which is weakened performance caused by using less talented workers — or in this case, players. At the very least, Martin’s absence will force the Dolphins to play Tyson Clabo, who began the season at as the Dolphins’ starting right tackle, but who was benched after allowing eight sacks in Miami’s first six games. In Clabo’s last game prior to the Halloween game against the Bengals, Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams got past Clabo twice in the fourth quarter to sack quarterback Ryan Tannehill, the final time forcing a fumble that led to the Dolphins’ loss. Clabo’s weak play against the Bills caused the Dolphins to trade for left tackle Bryant McKinnie from the Baltimore Ravens; he has already been inserted into the starting lineup.

Clearly, the loss of a starting offensive tackle, one of the first 50 players drafted in 2012, will hamper the performance of the Dolphins’ offense, but that’s not the team’s only short-term problem. Now the Dolphins have lost Incognito, a 2012 Pro Bowl guard. Also being investigated is Dolphins’ center Mike Pouncey, who was served with a grand jury subpoena in the criminal investigation of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez after Miami’s October 27 game in New England. Pouncey, a college teammate and former roommate of Hernandez, was photographed wearing a “Free Hernandez” hat in July. The Dolphins, who have allowed 35 sacks through eight 8 games this season, cannot afford the loss of any talent from its offensive line.

The Dolphins must repair the damage to the team’s locker room reputation to prevent long-term problems in recruiting free agents. Even though this hostile work environment may not be unlawful, it will likely that it will drive away talented players. Prime free agents can get similar financial terms from more than one suitor, and often the free agent’s decision comes down to his perception of team management, the coaching staff, and the other players. No one wants to work in an uncomfortable environment or be part of locker room discord when he can get paid the same salary to work in a more harmonious atmosphere. More importantly, no player with options will want to play for an organization that allows its talented players to be abused in this fashion or fosters an environment in which an important player is taunted to the point of walking away from the team. How many of the rookies who were victems of veteran extortion will want to remain with the organization that failed to protect them? It will be interesting to see what the unrestricted free agent Dolphin players, which include nine starting players, will do in the next offseason.

While there is a long tradition of hazing in organized sports at every level, it has become less and less tolerated. In some cases, bullying may be the basis for harassment and discrimination claims, but in every case, workplace bullying hurts the organization. While NFL teams may expect “boys to be boys” and engage in hazing, the Dolphins made the mistake of allowing it to go on for too long to the “Big Weirdo,” and the team has lost one of its starting tackles and one of its starting guards. Had the team acted sooner, it may have prevented Incognito from engaging in conduct that led to his suspension or Martin’s departure. Failing to intervene to prevent harassment and/or discrimination can be devastating to productivity in any workplace. Organizations should be placing a priority on maintaining a safe, welcoming workplace in order to get the most out of their employees, especially when the employee is getting paid a half-million dollars or more.

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