Posted November 06, 2013

In the NFL, bullying awareness and prevention happens on a case-by-case basis

Miami Dolphins
Richie Incognito's abhorrent behavior towards Jonathan Martin needs to spark a culture change in the NFL in regards to bullying.

Richie Incognito’s abhorrent behavior towards Jonathan Martin needs to spark a culture change in the NFL in regards to bullying. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

In David Halberstam’s outstanding book October 1964, there’s a story about the issues between New York Yankees catcher Elston Howard and teammate Jim Coates. Howard was the Yankees’ first black player, a dignified man and respected veteran, while Coates was a marginal relief pitcher prone to some rather backward attitudes about race in America. Coates wouldn’t shut up about his feelings regarding Howard and other black players, and pitcher Whitey Ford took matters into his own hands. In 1961, Ford arranged a boxing match between Howard and Coates during the team’s annual trip to West Point, and it didn’t take long for Howard to flatten Coates where he stood — which did indeed shut Coates up.

It seems like a sensible solution in theory when considering the news about former Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito and teammate Jonathan Martin. It’s now clear that Incognito bullied and harassed Martin in ways that went far beyond anything generally accepted as rookie hazing. Incognito sent texts and voicemails to Martin that contained racial slurs, threats against Martin and his family, and the insistence that he would defecate in Martin’s mouth.

But the difference between what happened to Martin and what happened to Howard is that when Ford stepped in on Howard’s behalf, he was acting as a team leader — doing what needed to be done, and handling things in-house. Martin had no such options, because Incognito was one of six Dolphins players named to the team’s “leadership council” (a laughable conceit given Incognito’s long history of abhorrent behavior on and off the field), which means that for Martin, the game was rigged against him from the start. Had he taken his concerns to head coach Joe Philbin, as many have wondered why he did not, Martin would have been seen as a rat who betrayed a veteran. Had he engaged in physical retribution, as many have wondered why he did not, he would have been the out-of-control kid who attacked a figure of respect on the team.

Martin took the only reasonable avenue available to him. Frustrated beyond the breaking point by the environment he did not create but was forced to endure, he left the team and sought counseling, This is what a reasonable person would do in any walk of life if the person tormenting him was essentially endorsed by the boss, and retribution was out of the question.

Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin either knew about this issue before it blew up (which makes him an accessory) or he didn’t know about it at all (which makes him an absentee administrator). On Monday, Philbin announced that the NFL would conduct a thorough investigation of the work environment at the Dolphins’ facility. However, on Tuesday, a report from Omar Kelly of the Sun Sentinel indicated that Miami’s coaches went to Incognito and told him to toughen Martin up. If that’s the case, Philbin may be looking for a new job sooner than later.

“I want you to know as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins I am in charge of the workplace atmosphere,” Philbin said. “Since April 10, 2012 when the players first came here and I was the head coach, every decision I’ve made and everything we’ve done to the facility has been done with one thing in mind, and that is to help our players and our organization reach their full potential. Any type of conduct, behavior that detracts from that behavior is not acceptable and is not tolerated.”

Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin will pay a proce for his own lack of awareness (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin must now answer for his own lack of awareness. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

But it was acceptable and it was tolerated — partially because Philbin apparently wasn’t in the loop, and partially because Martin didn’t see any way to let Philbin know without it blowing back on him.

And that constitutes a complete and total leadership failure. It’s on Philbin to provide a reasonable environment, and he blew it. What makes Philbin less than totally culpable in this circumstance is the extent to which the NFL culture and mindset endorses people like Incognito, and considers people like Martin weak.

SI.com’s Jim Trotter recently spoke to multiple NFL personnel men and players about Martin, and the general response was startling. “If Incognito did offend him racially, that’s something you have to handle as a man,” one executive told Trotter. “[Dolphins center] Mike Pouncey was a rookie at one point while Incognito was there and you never heard any complaints from him. There’s no other way to put it, other than him being sofTTT!”

“Locker room culture will never be understood unless you’ve lived or have been around it,” another executive said. “This is another ploy in the league’s ‘player safety’ book. Incognito knew who to try. You never heard anything like this come from John Jerry or Mike Pouncey. Instead of being a man and confronting him, [Martin] acted like a coward and told like a kid.”

The second executive did have a moment of insight in an otherwise unenlightened take — Incognito knew who to try. As any successful bully would do, Incognito avoided the people who would fight back, instead settling on a young man he considered to be an easy mark.

Vic Eumont, Martin’s high school coach, told the Palm Beach Post that “Bullies usually go after people like him. With his background, he’s a perfect target.” Eumont hypothesized that in a room full of alpha dogs, Martin was a quiet kid, eager to please and most likely too embarrassed to reveal what had happened to him.

The NFL has no specific rule against hazing. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who had been curiously silent throughout this process, sent a memo to all 32 teams in Dec., 2010, after female reporter Inez Sainz was allegedly harassed by members of the New York Jets football team. In that memo, Goodell wrote that “each of us must fully understand just how powerful an impact our own personal behavior can have on those we work with. and why the individual decisions we make within our workplace must be good ones. It is not enough to stand behind the strong values of the NFL; we must stand for them.”

But with no specific rule in place, each team must handle such things individually, which puts the burden even more on coaches. Several coaches spoke up after the Incognito-Martin incident went public, and it’s no surprise that, to a man, they insisted that this kind of bullying is not tolerated in their locker rooms.

“We do a lot of work along those lines, a lot of positive work, a lot of team-oriented work, a lot of encouragement, but recognizing that there is peer-pressure involved,” Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said on Monday. “I don’t know one thing about [the Miami situation], so don’t ask me what that’s about. I’m not commenting on that other than the fact that there is peer-pressure involved and there is competitiveness involved, but if it goes beyond or over the line, then of course we’re involved.”

Current Denver Broncos interim head coach and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio took a stronger stand in 2011 when he was the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Del Rio banned hazing altogether, with the exception of the rookie talent show, various dance contests, and the time-honored tradition in which rookies carry veterans’ helmets and shoulder pads.  It seems like a small thing, but it wasn’t to players like receiver Kasim Osgood, who told ESPN that he was tied up and beaten as a rookie.

“We’re more focused on team building than hazing right now,” Osgood said. “We don’t want to have anybody here feeling like they’re in an atmosphere where they’re not welcome and have that affect them on the field. We want everybody to be as productive as possible. You’re still going to get hazed, but in a different kind of way.”

Former NFL quarterback and current CBS analyst Rich Gannon said this week that he’s seen a wide variance in attitudes on this subject.

“I have absolutely no tolerance for this type of behavior. I’ve seen first-hand how this can divide and really destroy a locker room, a team and quite frankly, an entire organization… Early in my career at Minnesota, I remember the older players, there was a culture that existed where they were worried about their jobs. They didn’t reach out and help younger players. I also went to places like Kansas City where Marty Schottenheimer created a culture and environment where none of this existed. Older players reached out to younger players and welcomed them to the organization and were very supportive. Then I went to an organization in Oakland, which quite frankly made me sick. This culture and environment existed out there with older players bullying younger players.”

When Gannon went to Oakland in 1999, he had enough veteran equity to change the dynamic.

“At one point, I remember coming into the locker room my very first year there, and I saw a group of defensive lineman had our young tight end tied up with tape. They were punching him. They were putting icy-hot and baby powder with water on this guy. They were trying to demoralize the player. I freaked out. I said, ‘I need this guy on Sunday.’ I really thought that I helped to change the culture and the environment in that building … If this exists in your locker room, you have no chance of being successful.”

So, that young player had Gannon as his Whitey Ford — the veteran who would intervene on his behalf. And maybe that’s where the change happens. After all, the locker room is the one sanctuary the players really have. Coaches don’t go in there unless a game has just ended. That’s why Philbin didn’t know about what Martin was going through — if he didn’t know.

On Monday, I asked Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll if he feels comfortable and confident that he would know that one of his players was going through something like this.

“I have asked,” he said. “I just asked around to make sure that everything is okay, and we haven’t had any issues about that because that can be the case. I think we’re in really good shape, and I said, ‘I’m going to go up there and talk to these guys today.’ I want my information to be right. I want to make sure, is there anything going on that I don’t know about? As far as I can tell from the people that I’ve talked to I think we’re in really good shape that way. It’s never been an issue, and that didn’t happen in college either. I just don’t like it; I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”

It’s possible that Incognito will prove valuable to the NFL in his new role as the example of a longstanding problem whose actions have been made public. Just as the New Orleans Saints took the heat for decades of bounties, and players today must pay a retroactive price for the NFL’s longtime ignorance of the real effects of head trauma, Incognito might be the poster child for a new era of personal responsibility — a murderous irony if ever there was one.

“There’s no question, there’s no question,” Carroll said when I asked him if this was yet another case in which perception had finally caught up to reality. “We grow all the time in our awareness of things, and at one time we thought it was okay and then we realized what were we thinking. The concussion thing couldn’t be more obvious of an example of that, and it’s just lack of awareness and education. Sometimes you have to take a couple of steps back to take a step forward, and we had to do that in a number of areas. This is certainly one of them again.”

Well, it could be. It will take the efforts of a lot of people to make that happen, and it starts with shifting the blame to the place it where it belongs — away from the victim, and straight to the instigator. 52 years ago, Elston Howard did it with a fist. The NFL must do it with a culture change from top to bottom.

24 comments
PWINGS
PWINGS

After watching Joe Philbin and the Miami Dolphins featured on HBO Sports' series Hard Knocks, I see no way that Philbin can not be held responsible for this mess. The cameras repeatedly showed Phibin criticizing players whose shoes were untied or shirt tails hanging out. Furthermore, the Dolphins obviously took great care to manage the "public image" of the team and avoid any embarrassing moments for the team. An obvious "control freak" like Philbin can hardly hide behind an alibi that "I didn't know". As one of the other NFL players said: "There are no secrets in a locker room!". For the money that Philbin's being paid, he could make better use of his time than being the "uniform police" and policing the practice field for gum wrappers. If he insists on total control, then he should be held totally responsible. Authority = Responsibility.

Sammyz
Sammyz

“Locker room culture will never be understood unless you’ve lived or have been around it,”


Quote for truth.   Those that have deployed with Combat Arms will understand too.

Jamjam
Jamjam

While it is a minor side issue, I find it ironic that the NFL executives who state that Martin is "soft" and "a coward", were not identified.  If they have an opinion they want to express, own up to it.  Don't hide behind anonymity.

Rickapolis
Rickapolis

One of the most objectionable arguments I've heard in all of this, and I've heard MANY objectionable things, is that 'The NFL is a different culture unlike other workplaces'. BULL. It is not. It is no different at all. People must be treated with dignity everywhere. The players like to use this excuse to justify their childish, contemptible behavior. This case is screaming out for legal interference. Miami police have to investigate to see if in fact crimes have been committed. Why professional athletes should be treated differently than everyone else is a situation that needs to stop right now.  

BY
BY

Instead of being a man and confronting him, [Martin] acted like a coward and told like a kid.”

The second executive did have a moment of insight in an otherwise unenlightened take — 

so Doug, tell about your years as an NFL exec..........

sarteestmd
sarteestmd

The crazy thing about this, so many NFL players and coaches and fans look upon Martin as a wimp. The truth is, despite his 6'-3"  320 lb. stature, a happenstance of his DNA, it is Incognito that is the wimp, not Martin. Incognito is so insecure he can't hurt enough, torture enough, kill enough to fill that big void in the middle of his psyche. Don't let that big physique fool you. If Incognito had been born on the frail side of the human spectrum, with his weak soul, he'd be bullying and killing cats instead.

mikecloud243
mikecloud243

This is how the new generation of americans is taught to dealt with issues with another person. Go tell an adult. 

decredico
decredico

The NFL has long been a culture built upon abuse and bullying. The opponent is subjected to overt abuse physically at the point of attack on the field of play and within the framework of the rules and 'spirit' of the game. And internally, certain teammates act as covert drill instructors bullying and abusing weaker teammates in order to see who musters up and will be able to deliver crowd cheering abuse on Sunday afternoon. There has long been a cover-up by upper echelon and the players have long felt it was not a form of abuse at all but just simple prankery to test one's mettle and 'manhood.'


Times change.

The NFL is across the zenith of its cultural arc and influence on the larger culture for which it is a part. 

We now bear witness to the start of its demise as the influence it exerts is no longer seen as benign or indifferent among people that are becoming enlightened to its true role in American culture, which has always been nefarious, and not at all in the best interests of the public or the people actually playing.

cardogpush
cardogpush

ironic that these issues were not raised until after martin was demoted from LT to RT

 I do not think it is out of bounds to ask why he did not stand up for himself 

 When in our culture a word is offensive for one person to say then it should be offensive for all to say.Until that standard is applied then I am sick and tired of people crying wolf. The kid is probably an ill fit for that alpha dominated segment of our society. Perhaps he is better suited to another line of work where sensitivity is an asset rather than a weakness.

 When dez bryant told a veteran to carry his own stuff he was skewered as not being a team guy and not knowing his place .... yet this kid tolerated this abuse then ran and told daddy and now many are  running to his defense . I think the fact that his own teammates did not intervene tells me that much ado is being made over little. Even some of the people defending martin in terms of players are more or less saying the racial stuff is out of bounds (obvious) but not wholly condemning the action.

gary41
gary41

Nice article with appropriate comments generally....

EarlMalmsteen
EarlMalmsteen

How about we stop critiquing what strategy Martin should or should not have taken? He is not the racist bigoted ignorant moron who caused this, and is NOT the one who deserves to be critiqued. How about an article about Incognito and whether he stands by what he said? On what grounds does a grown man say those things to someone and live with himself? These are the more important questions than whether the target of racist actions did the "right" thing. Give me a damn break.

OK
OK

“If Incognito did offend him racially, that’s something you have to handle as a man,” one executive told Trotter. ”[Dolphins center] Mike Pouncey was a rookie at one point while Incognito was there and you never heard any complaints from him. There’s no other way to put it, other than him being sofTTT!”

Mike Pouncey's been spending his valuable time helping accused multiple murderer Aaron Hernandez.

A real man, Mike Pouncey.

Samuel3
Samuel3

@sarteestmd  

I agree with you completely.  I give Martin a lot of credit, actually, to walk away.  Especially in that line of work and in that culture, and if Martin grew up poor and had his family about which to worry, how difficult it must have been to walk away from a job that paid so well and ask for help.  Especially psychological and emotional help.  Incognito will get what's coming to him, but I do worry about Martin's future in the NFL, as it will take a while for the culture to catch up now that we've recognized what needs to be changed.  I hope the NFL takes care of him, gives him a job, maybe something at the rookie symposium or as a league counselor.

Sammyz
Sammyz

@decredico  Just need to point one thing out.  

Drill Sergeants cannot touch you unless to save you from imminent danger.  They also have a very clear reason for the way Basic Training is set up.  They tear away your civilian habits so that they can build you back up as the Soldier you need to be.  And even in doing so, you are still treated with the respect a "Warrior" should be shown.

sarteestmd
sarteestmd

@cardogpush How did you do in 3rd grade reading comprehension? You really didn't understand the article. Did you even read it? Obviously, NFL locker room cultures differ from team to team. The Dolphins had no Whitey Ford, which, BTW, is likely why they have had a losing team for so many years. So what you want the take home lesson to be, cardopush, is to teach our young high school boys who are being bullied, to fight back and get the sh*t kicked out of them...or...to go out to the car and return with a 9 mm. Glock?

decredico
decredico

@cardogpush you have been brain washed and are on the wrong side of the argument and will soon be on the wrong side of history on this issue

Samuel3
Samuel3

@EarlMalmsteen  

That's a really good point.  If Incognito was in the right and can justify his actions, let's hear it.  Ditto for all those "personnel" speaking on the condition of anonymity.  

 The NFL is a product, for which we pay or do not pay per our own choice.  Many of us would choose not to eat veal because we don't like the idea of an infant animal being chained up and not being able to walk, basically tortured, and then slaughtered.  Ignoring "how the sausage is made" when we're talking about real people can have drastic consequences.  As a consumer, every time you pay for a product you are basically voting for the company providing it.  I suppose if a story broke about how the company who makes my favorite electronics is dumping chemicals into freshwater streams, I could ignore it and go about my merry way.

Martin spent every waking hour scared, and probably thought a heck of a lot more than any of us, including the author of this article, about the consequences of each and every response he could have chosen.  Every option was bad, it seemed to him, so he left.  Naturally he eventually talked about it and the consensus has basically been that something is wrong and it needs to be fixed.  I don't want to pay for a product where crap like this goes on behind the scenes, and as Gannon said it serves no real purpose.  The 'fins aren't winning games.

And anybody who wants to call Martin a coward from the safety of his mommy's basement, banging away anonymously on a keyboard, is the real coward (and a hypocrite).  Martin is a 300 plus pound NFL lineman.  Go tell him that to his face.

OK
OK

And Jimmy Trotter's the Spanos's House Real Estate Agent and Spin Doctor.

KevinB2014
KevinB2014

@Samuel3 @sarteestmd FYI, Martin didn't grow up poor. Anything but. Both parents are Harvard grads; his father is a college professor and his mother is a corporate lawyer for Toyota. No food stamps in that household. (His grandfather and great-grandfather are also Harvard grads.) And one more FYI: Martin is a Stanford grad.

I suspect some of this is pertinent to why he was picked on. Someone coming from a family like that probably helps feed the bullying instinct of someone who didn't. Add in a dose of racism and it can get real ugly. White bully jealous of black player who is more intelligent than he is and comes from a better family background than he does. POW!

sarteestmd
sarteestmd

@Samuel3 @sarteestmd Absolutely. In our testosterone infused NFL, Martin showed the true strength, especially given the fact he had no where to turn. There is obviously no locker room leader like Brady is likely to the Pats, or Manning is/was to the Colts/Broncos. Going above the locker room to the coach he'd be labeled a traitor. Martin will likely come back, not to the Dolphins but another team. He'll at least be offered the opportunity. As for Incognito, personality disorders are hard to correct and he certainly has a checkered past. He needs to get to the root of his anger, his low self-esteem. Then he can come back. Every body should be given the chance to right themselves, unless, of course, their transgressions are too far beyond the pale.

PWINGS
PWINGS

@Samuel3 @EarlMalmsteen   "....As a consumer, every time you pay for a product you are basically voting for the company providing it.  I suppose if a story broke about how the company who makes my favorite electronics is dumping chemicals into freshwater streams, I could ignore it and go about my merry way."

Earl, your comment describes how an "educated consumer" thinks. However, with professional and amateur sports, you're taught to be a "fan" and not a "consumer" You're taught that you have to be loyal to the "home team" no matter how deficient the product or indifferent the team is to the public. If you choose to not root for the team that provides an historically defective product, you're labeled a "fair weather fan" and ostracized as disloyal. However, I agree with the point you're making. If the public behaved as "educated consumers", they wouldn't have to read about this kind of unprofessional, criminal behavior.