The original news regarding Jonathan Martin quitting football because he was bullied was almost an Onion headline. I mean, we knew the Dolphins were soft – they had lost four of five games at the time – but walking away because of name-calling is a bit much.
But as the details came out, this story became much more than name-calling and ribbing. It was vicious and harmful. We found out that Martin was subjected to physical threats and racial abuse, and that it might go deeper than just Richie Incognito.
Hazing and bullying are common for exclusive male-only groups. From bands to sports teams to college fraternities, the youngest members are expected to do the majority of the grunt work and show a certain amount of respect to the older members in hope of building respect for the organization and understanding its importance. Hazing is also supposed to instill a certain sense of toughness, brotherhood, and self-reliance in the younger members. Whether it actually does is up for debate.
But an NFL team is different. The first thing that got lost in the criticism of Martin is that he didn’t join the Dolphins to be friends with them or to be a part of the exclusive brotherhood that is the Miami Dolphins. No, he was drafted by the franchise, and it is his place of employment.
Nobody plays football for the sheer brotherhood of an NFL team; they play because they get a paycheck. The Dolphins franchise is a workplace, just like an office building or McDonalds, and employees at any company have a legal right to have a workplace free of hate speech and threats.
The logic that allows for the type of treatment Martin received is missing a few things. Hazing is done with the long-term goal of building up those on the bottom. Nobody can believe Incognito really was helping Martin, even if he thought that in his own crazy world. Also, Martin isn’t obliged to be the victim of racial abuse because Incognito and others say so.
There are many traditions rookies go through for all teams in all sports, from carrying helmets off the field to wearing goofy clothes on road trips. These aren’t degrading or threatening like what Incognito did to Martin. Players can say, "This is how we do things" all they want, but that type of logic falls short when it becomes a legal issue like it has.
The Dolphins franchise is a workplace, and employees at any company have a legal right to have a workplace free of hate speech and threats.
Martin has been looked at by some as part of the problem, that it was up to him to confront Incognito and stop him. But I seriously doubt if Jonathan Martin told Richie Incognito to stop he would have, especially when Incognito was empowered by his own coaches. So when direct confrontation fails, Martin should have gone to the higher ups, but as we are learning more and more every day, that wasn’t an option either.
This incident will probably end up defining Martin’s career unless he does something else newsworthy off the field. That’s just the life of a right tackle. This incident has absolutely harmed his chances of getting brought back by the Dolphins or signed by another team. Organizations just don’t like people who take problems from within the organization and go outside with them, in football or anywhere else. Martin will always have a certain tattletale stigma.
So Martin’s career might be over, but I wouldn’t count on it. He is a talented offensive lineman so he will be back sooner or later, but with a different team. I wouldn’t be surprised actually if Martin transitioned into a long, lucrative career as an anti-bullying spokesman, going around to high schools and colleges talking about bullying and hazing.
The case of Richie Incognito is far more complicated. Will another team sign him? Probably, because the Riley Cooper ordeal taught us if you can play, people can overlook what you say or do. However, the NFLPA might intervene in a way they have never before. They have pledged to back Incognito and Martin, as they represent both of them, as they conduct their investigation. So it seems unlikely that they would punish Incognito, and do they even have the authority to do so? Nobody can really say for sure.
Moving on to the NFL, could they punish the Dolphins and Incognito for this? Could the Dolphins punish Incognito alone, even if he took his cue from coaches? Probably yes to both, but this is going into uncharted waters for everyone involved.
Incognito could also face civil or even criminal charges. In the state of Florida, people are protected under the Evidencing Prejudice While Committing Offense law from being discriminated against or threatened because of their race. The law offers triple compensation for monetary damages incurred (so three times whatever Martin has lost or will lose because of this situation).
Incognito also solicited money from Martin while making threats against his life, which is extortion. This is going to drag on for Incognito for a long time.
If Incognito was taking his cue from the men in charge, they let a nutjob have free reign over a fellow employee to abuse, harass, and extort as he wished
But Incognito isn’t the only culprit here. Joe Philbin has to be gone. The season has gone south record-wise rather quickly, but this can’t happen in a professional environment. Reports are that Martin never approached Philbin, but as a Head Coach, you have to have your finger on the pulse of your team better than Philbin did. Now, it has even come out that coaches were instructing Incognito to "toughen up" Martin, so approaching Philbin may have been out of the question anyway.
If Incognito was taking his cue from the men in charge, they let a nutjob have free reign over a fellow employee to abuse, harass, and extort as he wished under the veil of building up another player. I can possibly buy that Philbin was unaware of what Incognito was doing and that he didn’t knowingly allow it to happen.
But he should have been aware, and that’s enough for him to be fired. A coach just can’t be so clueless about his team’s culture, especially when it’s coming from his own coaching staff and taking place in team facilities.
The case of Jonathan Martin is sad and frightening. It’s sad to have someone exposed to the type of hate that Richie Incognito delivered. But it’s frightening because it was allowed to happen. Whenever a scandal breaks, whether it’s Penn State or the New Orleans Saints bounty program, we ask, 'How was this allowed to happen?' Where were the people in charge?
There is no satisfying answer. These stories represent a breakdown of responsibility at some of the highest levels of command by people who should be able to deal with them easily. Yet these breakdowns continue to happen, and everyone is just left to wonder how.