By Rachel West – Managing Editor
It started, seemingly, with a cafeteria prank. On Oct. 28, Jonathan Martin, offensive tackle for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, left the team for undisclosed mental issues, causing the Dolphins to place him on the non-football injury list, effectively ending his season. In the months to come, Martin and his representatives would name Richie Incognito, a guard for the Dolphins, as one of the main sources of harassment.
By Nov. 2, Incognito had been suspended by the Dolphins for unspecified misconduct. A voicemail would surface in which Incognito referred to Martin, who is bi-racial, by several racial and sexually charged slurs, including referring to him as a “half n—– piece of [expletive].”
Incognito would go on to claim that this was not harassment, and it was instead the way that he and Martin, who he referred to as best friends, would speak to each other. Text messages between the two that were released seem to corroborate his statements. Martin claimed in an interview with Tony Dungy on NBC that what Incognito said and did was part of a larger culture of hazing in the Dolphins locker room. The Dolphins, of course, denied these claims.
The Dolphins suspended Incognito from the team, but that suspension has already expired. The NFL hired investigator Ted Wells to give a report about what happened between Martin and Incognito. That report was published on Sat., Feb. 15.
The report found that Martin was subjected to harassing language by Incognito and two other players, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey; that the harassment constituted workplace bullying; that the same three players bullied another unnamed Dolphins player and an assistant trainer; and that the repeated acts of harassment contributed to Martin’s leaving the team.
It also found that the harassment contributed to Martin’s mental health issues, that he did not fabricate allegations of harassment as the team and Incognito in particular claimed, and that Martin’s supposed friendship with Incognito did not excuse the abuse.
In regard to the Dolphins team, the report found that the offensive line had a culture that allowed for bullying to develop and that the head leadership of the Dolphins did not know about the bullying. It did, however, find that OL Line Coach Jim Turner not only knew of the bullying, but often participated in the bullying actions toward Martin and the unnamed player.
In the fervor that followed this story of allegations, denials, and media scrutiny, a few things were completely lost that the NFL and football teams need to consider.
The NFL did not need the Wells Report to know that Incognito is a bully.
Unquestionably, Incognito is a bully and has been one for his entire career. At the University of Nebraska, where he was an All-American, he spit on a player from an opposing team, picked fights with other teams and his own, and had to be sent to anger management classes by his coaches.
He was charged with assault and broke team rules so many times that he was forced to leave the team. He transferred to the University of Oregon but was dismissed from the team one week later. Despite all of this, he was still drafted by the St. Louis Rams in 2005.
His NFL career was marred by fights on the sidelines and in the game. Over three seasons, from 2006-2009, he would draw more unnecessary roughness penalties than any other player in the game.
In 2009, NFL players voted Incognito the “Dirtiest Player in the League” in a Sporting News poll. In 2012, he sexually harassed and assaulted a female volunteer at a country club during a Dolphins’ golf tournament and refused to apologize.
Incognito is a bully, and he’s proud of it. And why shouldn’t he be? The most important part of the title “Dirtiest Player in the League” is the part where he is still in the league.
Why did NFL teams draft a young player who had a history of blatant violence on and off the field? The answer, of course, is because Incognito is talented. He holds records and has been part of some brilliant offensive lines. The NFL has again and again proven that it values talent more highly than moral character, and Incognito is just the most recent in a string of talented bullies that the NFL has made possible.
Now that Jonathan Martin has come forward and the Wells Report has definitively made clear Incognito’s bullying and the culture on the Dolphins’ team, there is an outcry for change. The Dolphins have undoubtedly jumped into damage control immediately, starting with firing Turner and, in the future, probably also firing Incognito, Pouncey, and Jerry.
The fact remains, however, that they hired Incognito in the first place, a player with a history of bullying and hazing, thereby perpetuating that behavior by silently condoning it. After all, what says “it’s okay that you act this way” more than a huge paycheck and a starting spot on an NFL team?
The important thing to know about the Wells Report and all that it entailed is that in the end, it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter that Incognito is one of the biggest bullies in the NFL today. It doesn’t matter that he harassed a fellow player until he was forced to leave the team for his own mental and emotional safety.
When it comes down to it, the NFL has decided that bullies are acceptable, and he will probably continue to play in the league. The Dolphins may fire him, but it is incredibly likely that in the next season or so, Incognito will be picked up by another team. Players know it. Fans know it. Most obviously, Incognito knows it.
Incognito knows that the NFL will accept him as a bully and a good football player, regardless of the outcome of the Wells report. He also knows what a lot of coaches and players are saying: Martin will not be welcome back into the league.
The NFL might embrace bullies, but it runs the other way when it comes to issues of mental health. A player with mental health issues who has spoken out against the hazing locker room culture that more or less is an open secret within the NFL? The chances of Martin landing a spot on a new team are small.
This is made abundantly clear by the findings of the Wells Report. The Wells Report spends an unnecessarily long time discussing Martin’s mental health issues. While attempting to seem objective, they come across as condescending and accusatory, continuously referring to the fact that Martin’s mental health issues and past problems with bullies made him “more vulnerable” to harassment.
The harassment to the degree that Martin experienced would be traumatizing to anyone, regardless of past mental health issues, but the report never mentions this. This is yet another indicator of the NFL’s general fear of dealing with players with mental health issues.
When the smoke clears on this issue, fans will be left with the same old NFL, an institution that through their actions condones bullying and hazing and dislikes any mention of players with mental health issues. There will be press conferences and media releases from teams and the league that say exactly the opposite. The truth is always revealed, however, in the names on the backs of jerseys the next season.