Bullying Belongs in No Office, NFL Included

You see the surface data — 6 feet 5, 312 pounds, 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 about Jonathan Martin. Please don’t. This is 2013, and none of us know what’s going on in his life, how he ticks emotionally, what things might bother him the way things bother the rest of us. Just because he’s a young, robust pro athlete with a nice paycheck and an elite education doesn’t mean he brushes it off easily when a teammate repeatedly ridicules him or takes advantage of him.

What I do know is, every one of us is entitled to respect within the 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 teammate thinks the mischief goes too far and becomes bullying, the fun crosses over into harassment.

And then, you have a disgraceful mess like the one that engulfs Martin, Richie Incognito and the Miami Dolphins.

Martin, a second-year starting right tackle, left the team abruptly last week after teammates allegedly teased him in the cafeteria at lunch, with Fox Sports reporting they smashed his tray and ran off. The pattern has been ongoing, according to media reports, and Martin officially filed a harrassment and misconduct complaint with the team Sunday through his representatives. The Dolphins, in turn, suspended Incognito on Sunday night but not before an awkward, embarrassing, three-day stretch of flip-flopping in which they weren’t sure who was right or wrong. The Dolphins also have asked the NFL to investigate the matter, which raises questions about the team’s coaches and management and why they haven’t sufficiently probed the situation themselves after letting tensions get out of hand. If Martin has been harrassed several times over two seasons, 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 because he feared retribution from Incognito and others.

“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,”

Incognito, a guard in his ninth NFL season, 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”

(All tweets have since been taken down.)

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 that he pitched in $15,000 for a Vegas trip involving several Dolphins players, though Martin had no interest in joining the group. Incognito looks worse with reports of tormenting text messages and a voice mail. Martin’s parents are involved, too. And if Dolphins center Mike Pouncey also was involved in bullying Martin, should we mention that: (1) his college 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 while he’ll be exposed to ridicule in some quarters, he should be 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.