Valentine’s Day saw the release of the report by Ted Wells and the Paul, Weiss law firm, who were retained by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell last November, after its investigation into the alleged hazing incident(s) involving Miami Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin and guard Richie incognito. The report is lengthy, but concise in its findings and descriptions of the evaluation process as well as statements obtained and resources relied upon. No matter what one’s expectations may be prior to reading the report, it is difficult not to conclude that the investigators did a thorough job even if one does not agree with the findings. You can read the report here.
To this writer, it is difficult to even label the situation that has unfolded in Miami. The national media has largely dubbed it a hazing situation, and it certainly does seem to be that in part if not in total. Certainly, Richie Incognito has been identified as the primary villain in in this saga. A reading of the report can justify that Incognito could be considered a villain, but he is not the only one and, therefore, cannot fairly be considered to be the villain. Offensive linemen John Jerry and Mike Pouncey along with offensive line coach Jim Turner fit the bill as villains in light of the findings. The report is particularly acerbic in its evaluation of Turner, whom the investigation plainly finds as having lied during the investigation. Specifically, the report found a systematic pattern of verbal abuse against not only Martin, but at least two other players as well as members of the training staff. The abuse was racial and homophobic in nature and in most cases extremely vulgar. The report, inexplicably to some, found no knowledge on the part of head coach Joe Philbin as to be existence of what seems to be institutionalized taunting and bullying. In fact, Philbin comes across as sincere in his desire to have a hospitable locker room. Many will find this hard to believe or, in the alternative, conclude that if it is true then Philbin is not doing his job.
Setting aside the search for an ultimate scapegoat, the purpose of this article is to assess the Dolphins organization in a broad overview in light of the findings. Certainly, there will be a scapegoat coming out of this situation, likely both literal and figurative. In many people’s minds, Incognito already holds that dubious distinction, though some will point to Turner, Pouncey, Jerry, owner Stephen Ross, or even Jonathan Martin himself. This writer does not desire to further damn any man, especially Turner, whom is the only one involved in this situation that your struggling writer has actually met. The real key to this whole situation, aside from whom may be the sacrificial lamb to be despised until we all move on to the next Big Thing in the media, is what it says about our attitudes as fans towards the “workplace” of an NFL locker room, a place the vast majority of fans have never been nor will ever be. There is no doubt that, as a society, we have over the last decade or so collectively decided that workplaces that are made inhospitable to anyone, for any reason other than poor job performance, are not acceptable. Despite this, there is also no doubt that an NFL locker room is very different from almost all other workplaces in our society. Not only is this a fact, it is part of the allure of the game that so many of us love so dearly.
The fact of the matter, however, is that many workplaces are distinct. The workplaces of the military, legal and medical services are all unique, for example. The point of those comparisons is that the mere fact that the NFL is comprised solely of young men who are disproportionately aggressive and play a sport where decorum, tact, and meekness are actual or perceived detriments is not the point. We as fans do not need to believe that the NFL locker room is comprised solely of musclebound barbaric troglodytes in order to enjoy the beautiful sport. The locker room is the sanctuary of the players and, given the basic nature of many of them as well as their youth, things will go on that would not be accepted in the board room of corporate America. But there is no excuse for creating a hostile locker room for any player, for any reason.
The report makes clear that Martin had prior issues of self-esteem and mental health which may have contributed to his reaction to the taunting and bullying of which he was a victim. Make no mistake, his tormentors knew, at some level, that their actions were having an effect on him as is made clear by some of the text messages contained in the report as well as the fact that they sought to cover them up after the situation came to a head. As is the case in many situations that come to the public eye, we know that bullying of this magnitude- or greater- has occurred before and will likely occur again. The key here is that there is absolutely no way the Miami Dolphins organization could not, or should not, have known what was going on.
Whether or not Jonathan Martin was overly sensitive to the criticism is beside the point. Suffice it to say that most across the country who may blame Jonathan Martin or state that he has to “stick up for himself” likely would not themselves resort to physical violence or aggressive retaliation in their own place of business. This writer would like to see the Dolphins take the lead among teams in the high profile major sports in setting the standard for ensuring a hospitable locker room. To place the blame on one individual to pacify those in the media and the public who want to place blame is merely slapping a Band-Aid on the wound. That wound will have a scab that can easily be picked open again and bleed freely. What is needed is a requirement that the culture of an NFL locker room will not condone bullying or taunting of any nature directed towards anyone. It should also be made clear that players or employees of any NFL team who believe they are the target or victim of any such behavior have resources to go to without fear of retribution. This is easier said than done, but it is what we require of all other workplaces in our society.
There is absolutely no reason that our most popular sport, with the deepest resources as well as pockets, should not be held to the same standard. We as fans can feel better knowing that our sport is trying to progress on certain matters in the same manner as other professions in society. Furthermore, it will make for a better overall product on the field. The guess here is that most Miami Dolphins fans wish that the past season had not been tainted, in large part, by this unnecessary mess. Being angry that the problem reached the public eye is no solution to the problem itself. We all know that the 2013 Miami Dolphins season was not the first to be derailed by inappropriate behavior behind closed doors, but certainly we can all hope that it will be the last.