In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: NFL forced to clean up act, just in time for Michael Sam

It was an investigation of abhorrent “workplace conduct” within the Miami Dolphins, and the findings were, by the standards of any normal workplace, an exposition of vulgar, homophobic, racist, sexist, xenophobic goading.

Except the NFL locker room seemed so habitually aberrant, so removed from modern workplace norms, that players, coaches, trainers, front office executives hardly noticed behavior so repugnant that when it was revealed to the public, it ignited a national scandal.

Attorney Ted Wells, who carried out the investigation for the NFL, not only found that Richie Incognito bullied teammate Jonathan Martin and contributed to the mental crisis that caused Martin to abruptly quit the team Oct. 28, but that Incognito and fellow linemen Mike Pouncey and John Jerry “routinely mocked and demeaned other Dolphins players and personnel.”

Wells offered graphic details that in any normal workplace would have shocked sensibilities. Except no one around the Dolphins seemed aware that that these players were engaged in socially unacceptable behavior. Not until Martin made his assertions public. “It is undisputed that these coaches never sought to stop the behavior,” Wells stated.

It was such a debased work environment, Wells’ report suggested, that perhaps even the three antagonists failed to perceive how far they had exceeded the bounds of permissible behavior.

All the Dolphins players were issued the NFL’s “rules of workplace behavior” last year, the sort of boilerplate document all of us in corporate America sign without reading, because, by the 21st Century, we hardly need to be warned of prohibitions against “unwelcome contact; jokes, comments and antics; generalizations and put-downs; pornographic or suggestive literature and language.” As it turns out, that phrase, from the NFL handbook, nicely described the prevailing locker room culture. Wells wrote, in a phrase laden with understatement, that those rules “were not fully appreciated and, with respect to at least some of their actions, Incognito and his teammates may not have been clearly notified that they were crossing lines that would be enforced by the team with serious sanctions.”

“In fact,” Wells said, “many of the issues raised by this investigation appear to be unprecedented. We are unaware of any analogous situation in which anti-harassment policies have been applied to police how NFL teammates communicate and interact with each other.”

Not that anyone believed that lowdown language, or even “persistent bullying, harassment and ridicule” had been limited to the Dolphins. As Wells admitted, “professional athletes commonly indulge in conduct inappropriate in other social settings.” Perhaps pro football’s obliviousness to modern social norms has something to do with the game itself, built around violent, brain-banging crippling collisions and physical domination. (Was the 2014 Super Bowl not seen as a triumph of the Seahawks’ superior physicality over the Bronco’s cerebral precision?) Pro football players receive prodigious salaries and heaps of public adulation to indulge in a primitive adolescent pursuit. It’s not a sport that engenders civil behavior.

Wells noted that “good-spirited goading often contributes to team bonding,” and that other NFL teams indulge in rookie hazing — stuff that wouldn’t be tolerated in a conventional work environment. Maybe the pugnacious Incognito, with a history of impulse problems, couldn’t quite discern the NFL’s hazy boundaries.

Wells does conceive that “although Incognito, Jerry and Pouncey verbally harassed Martin, we find that they did not intend to drive Martin from the team or cause him lasting emotional injury.”

Oddly, Martin never complained about the harassment he endured to coaches or other players. He didn't tell Incognito to knock it off. In fact, he often chummed around with his great tormentor and exchanged some 1,300 text messages with him between September 10, 2012, and November 3, 2013.

Martin’s own texts to Incognito were often sexist, homophobic, crude and would seem utterly reprehensible in some other setting. (I’m pretty sure they’d get me fired.) In some normal workplace, his graphic misogyny would hardly seem any more acceptable than Incognito’s ugly treatment of his teammates. But against Incognito’s mean, insanely scatological and socially shocking missives, a misogynistic whore monger comes off as the victim of an insensitive bully. Wells recounted the crude remarks Incognito made about Martin’s mother and sister. The women Martin disparaged hardly registered in the NFL investigation.

Other Dolphins players and coaches might be excused for thinking the bully and the victim were best buddies, given that they were frequent companions at raunchy outings, fellow connoisseurs of strip clubs and bars, in perpetual pursuit of loose women. According to Wells, “the vast majority of the messages do seem to show a mutual friendship. Many of the messages show Martin and Incognito seeking each other out, making plans to meet at bars, restaurants or other places. The two men talked about Dolphins’ practices and about college sports. They discussed intimate details of their sex lives, often in graphic terms.”

Wells acknowledged that their relationship was “ambiguous and complicated.” He theorized that in an effort to deal with the bullying, Martin developed a “curious but seemingly close friendship with Incognito, his alleged primary harasser.” Yet there was “no doubt that Martin at times enjoyed socializing with Incognito.”

Wells explained Martin’s friendship with Incognito as “consistent with the reaction of a person who is trapped in an abusive situation.”

He attributed this supposition to a consulting psychologist, an expert in “workplace dynamics, interaction and culture and interpersonal dysfunction within workplace relationships.”

Any reporter who has covered criminal or civil trials knows that Incognito’s lawyers could come up with another consulting expert with a very different take. (The report just as easily suggests that Incognito, with his wild mood swings, might suffer from bipolar disorder. Martin thought so. “Incognito is the most bipolar person I’ve met…” he remarked in a text to a teammate.) Wells relied on an inexact, ultimately unprovable theory upon which to support his weighty conclusions. Surely, then, it’s a bit much to suggest that players and coaches in a rowdy NFL environment should have recognized the detrimental dynamics of this apparent close friendship. Nor would other players have known that Martin suffered episodic bouts of depression that might have rendered him especially vulnerable to the boorish antics of an NFL environment. Perhaps, they only saw Incognito, in the crude way of pro football culture, as trying to motivate an under performing, overpaid, hard partying slacker.

But the contradictions and ambiguities of this strange relationship won’t much matter to the NFL. Wells concluded that the Dolphins locker room was beset by a “pattern of harassment” and that Martin was a victim of bullying antics and that’s that. The league execs also know that a public accustomed to the civil behavior of a normal workplace has been shocked by details of the crude banter and adolescent perversities and homophobic insults so common in NFL locker rooms. The brand has been damaged. Something must be done.

Tough new workplace rules are surely coming. And soon. The unprecedented announcement by pro prospect Michael Sam, a star defensive back from the University of Missouri, that he is gay, lends a sense of urgency to the NFL’s bully problem.

Richie Incognito may have harassed a mentally fragile player until he left the team in despair, but Incognito’s excesses have also forced the NFL to finally impose societal norms on a crude and unruly culture. Just in time for Michael Sam. Just in time for the 21st century.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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