While a Bully Raged, Dolphins Enabled Him

He is a strong man with thick skin, stronger and thicker than even his 6-5, 312-pound profile suggests. Jonathan Martin is a better fellow than most of us, because for six months, he was able to absorb and handle with class the kind of sick, demeaning, threatening voice mail that would have driven most of us instantly berserk.

“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—ing mouth. (I’m going to) slap your f—ing mouth. (I’m going to) slap your real mother across the face (laughter). F— you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”

It came straight from the twisted mind of Richie Incognito, Martin’s now-former offensive linemate with the Miami Dolphins. And it’s a shockingly brutal, unspeakably appalling example of how a warped man can intimidate a workplace colleague while actually believing, in 2013, that it’s an acceptable form of caveman hazing because he’s in an NFL locker-room culture. The audio represents only a small part of a two-year pattern of harrassment and abuse toward Martin that led to Incognito’s indefinite suspension by the team and, surely, the end of his nine-year NFL career. One could make a sound case that Incognito should be arrested, given the racially loaded and threatening nature of his profane verbal assault. I don’t know how Martin could keep showing up for work every day without telling a Dolphins coach or executive, or retaliating physically against Incognito, who allegedly sent texts and other voice messages to Martin with racial epithets, sexual orientation insults and female anatomy descriptions.

But apparently, the bullying by Incognito and other Miami veterans was so overwhelming that Martin chose to stay quiet … until he finally had enough and left the team last week, after someone slapped a tray out of his hands in the team lunch room, something you’d see in the sixth grade. That’s when Martin and his parents contacted the NFL Players Association and told the Dolphins they were taking action.

Initially, the Dolphins reacted irresponsibly and were inclined to defend Incognito, with an unnamed front-office executive actually hailing him last week as a model citizen. Then they asked Martin’s parents if they’d agree to keep the story out of the media, which amounts to a cover-up attempt, something the NFL commissioner’s office has practiced rather pathetically amid the concussion crisis. Where the Dolphins were during this ugly, two-season debacle, I can’t explain. They thought so highly of Incognito, they actually had him tape — in what now seems so absurd you have to laugh out loud — a PSA asking fans to behave and treat others with respect inside the stadium. Never mind a history of anger management issues, how he was suspended from the Nebraska football team and kicked off the Oregon football team, how he was voted the NFL’s dirtiest player by his peers, how he was cut by the St. Louis Rams in 2009 after he argued with coach Steve Spagnuolo, how he allegedly knocked out a hotel security guard as recently as this past June. The Dolphins were so clueless, they didn’t mind that Incognito was on a six-player team leadership panel, as voted by his teammates, that served as a go-between with management. The Dolphins were so blind, they had the biggest jerk in football asking fans to be nice to each other, unaware that Incognito was terrorizing a teammate who didn’t know how to handle the relentless swarm.

You see the surface data on Martin — the height, the weight, 24 years old, a Stanford guy who protected Andrew Luck, a second-round draft pick with a sweet NFL contract — and you’re tempted to make stereotypical assumptions. Please don’t. Just because he’s a young, robust professional athlete with a nice paycheck and an elite college education doesn’t mean he brushes it off easily when a teammate repeatedly ridicules him and takes advantage of him. What I do know is, every one of us is entitled to respect within a workplace. And that applies to the sports locker room, as well, even if it traditionally has been a testosterone-and-machismo sanctum of horseplay, teasing, hazing and pranks. This isn’t to say sports teams still can’t have guy’s-guy fun the right way; we just saw the Boston Red Sox yank on each other’s beards all the way to a World Series championship. The goal, I believe, is male bonding, yet if even one player thinks the mischief goes too far and becomes bullying, the fun crosses into harassment.

And you have a disgraceful mess such as this.

How, when we’re trying to envision gay players in an NFL locker room, could there ever be civility with goons like Incognito around?

The coaching staff is to blame for not addressing this situation long ago. If they were unaware of the bullying, that’s unacceptable — how could they possibly miss it unless they’re sleeping on the job? If they were aware and let the bullying fester, all of them should resign. The Dolphins have asked the NFL to investigate the matter, which raises questions about the coaches and management and why they didn’t sufficiently probe the situation themselves after letting tensions get out of hand. If Martin has been harrassed repeatedly, and if there were outward signs he didn’t like it, why did the abuse continue? Why didn’t other teammates stop the bullies? Where were head coach Joe Philbin and his assistants? Where was the front office?

It took a report by ESPN’s Adam Schefter, who labeled Incognito as the primary bully, to force the Dolphins’ hand. ESPN also reported that Martin waited several days to file a formal complaint after the lunchroom episode because he feared retribution from Incognito and other players.

“The Miami Dolphins have suspended Richie Incognito for conduct detrimental to the team,” the team said in a statement. “We 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.”

Late Monday, Philbin finally surfaced and spoke up. He assumed accountability, the first one in the building to do so, and called a team meeting Monday to outline how he expects players to behave in the workplace. Seems he was about a year and a half too late in sending his message with authority. It’s hard to imagine he keeps his job when another disappointing Miami season is finished.

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

“You know, two of my children go to school right behind here at the university school. As a parent, when they walk in those doors, I have certain expectations with administration, with the teachers and the staff that they will create a safe atmosphere where my children can learn and develop as people. This is no different. I take this responsibility very serious.”

Incognito didn’t come off as a level-headed grown-up in a string of erratic wee-hours messages Sunday on his Twitter feed. They went thusly:
4:47 a.m. — “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth. Buddha”
5:42 a.m. — “@Adam Schefter A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on. Winston Churchill.”
5:46 a.m. — “@Adam Schefter Stop slandering my name. You hide behind “sources” who are not man enough to put their name behind the BS you report”
5:49 a.m. — “@Adam Schefter This is the second time you have tried to drag my name through the mud with with lies”
5:50 a.m. — “@espn shame on you for attaching my name to false speculation. I won’t be holding my breathe for an apology”
5:52 a.m. — “@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”
6:08 a.m. — “@espn @CBSSports @NBCSports @FOXSports @ProFootballTalk I want my name CLEARED”

For a man professing his innocence about bullying, Incognito sure seemed to be bullying Schefter, a veteran NFL reporter well-regarded for accuracy and sources. Incognito didn’t help his cause by claiming Schefter isn’t “man enough” to name his source. Among the allegations, as reported by ESPN, was a story that Martin was so intimidated by Incognito and other veterans who wanted rookies to fund them that he pitched in $15,000 for a Vegas trip involving several Dolphins players, though Martin had no interest in joining the group. If center Mike Pouncey also was involved in bullying Martin, should we mention that: (1) his roommate at Florida was Aaron Hernandez; (2) he was wearing a “Free Aaron Hernandez” cap over the summer; and (3) he was served a grand-jury subpoena last month in the Hernandez murder case in Massachusetts?

So, here we are at another gray-area crossroads in sports. We’ve gotten around in the 21st century to taking care of human brains and praising gay athletes when they come out. Now, are we finally going to put a much-needed end to hazing? The Martin case should be the impetus, and he should be universally applauded for filing a complaint and triggering a process that led to Incognito’s suspension.

This goes on in many workplaces, of course. In Chicago, I worked at a dying, insane-asylum newspaper where co-workers often tried to pick fights. A couple of my sportswriting colleagues would walk into press boxes and bully teammates. One of them, an older columnist who didn’t like me and the fact I was on national TV, challenged me to two fist fights — right there and then — for no good reason. I’d just laugh at the guy and alert a press-box guard, then let the editors know they had hotheads in the ranks and that it wasn’t good for morale or outside perceptions. One of my editors — the editor-in-chief, in fact — thought the best recourse was to scream at me for pointing it out and, when I tried to leave his office, forearm-shiver me against a wall. He was fired shortly afterward, but the bullying didn’t stop. I had to break up two fights between our football writers, once in a Super Bowl hotel lobby in Jacksonville, the other in a press-box elevator in San Diego.

Point being, teammates are supposed to be just that: teammates. For the Dolphins ever to escape terminal mediocrity, a seasoned pro like Richie Incognito has to support a young linemate like Jonathan Martin. When enemies lie within, no one wins but the cancer cells.