Dear Ted Wells,
Welcome to Miami.
You are here on an extremely difficult mission as the NFL-appointed investigator in charge of sorting out the mess in the Miami Dolphins locker room. As a nationally respected, Harvard-educated attorney, you certainly are qualified to dig to the truth in the highly publicized, highly charged case of Dolphins linemen Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito.
I hope you find the truth. I really do. Because the national media, for the most part, is doing a shameful job of it, pouncing on rumors, half-truths and tiny lawyer-leaked tidbits and vilifying Incognito and the Dolphins with little perspective and without speaking to anybody in that locker room.
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In today’s Twitter age of lazy recycled “journalism,” and ESPN’s endless repetition, the Dolphins’ dirty laundry has been on spin cycle from the moment that excerpt of Incognito’s ugly voice message was leaked. The fact that this story broaches hot-button buzzwords bullying and racism makes it a sexy topic, and once the media’s agenda had been set, it took off like a runaway train.
But those of us who did interview Dolphins found that players both black and white offered a different picture. They felt the portrayal of Incognito as a racist bully is unfair, that context was missing. This story is not as simple as black and white, bully or no bully. Incognito and Martin were portrayed as friends. Incognito viewed himself as a big brother offering tough love. Martin wrote Incognito a nice text four days after he left the team.
Please put on some Bose headsets, block out the noise, and listen to the men in that locker room, the men who worked and battled alongside Martin and Incognito for the past year and a half. Give them the same chance to tell their side as you gave Martin during his seven-hour interview.
If the NFL’s aim is truly to change the culture of its workplace, to bring more class and dignity to the rowdy, sexist frat-house atmosphere of its locker rooms, then I say, “Great! It’s about time.”
But if the NFL’s aim in this investigation is to single out Dolphin players, coaches and executives and punish them for creating a hostile work environment, then the league is being unfair and wearing blinders because this behavior is not exclusive to the Dolphins, and it didn’t begin this year.
I have been a sportswriter for 27 years, and could fill your notebook with locker room horror stories from all over the league. It is not a normal workplace. Not even close. It is 53 giant young men playing a violent sport, slamming their bodies into their opponents. When those men are bonding in the privacy of their locker room, their jokes and language would not sit well with anybody’s grandma.
Take any group of 53 guys – football players, lawyers, plumbers – put them in a room without women for eight months, and chances are, the language will get dirty. If you had placed a recorder in every NFL locker room two months ago, I don’t believe it would have sounded any different than the sounds of the Dolphins.
As for accusations that Miami offensive line coach Jim Turner used military-style motivation tactics, it is hard to imagine he’s alone. The NFL is full of loud, demanding coaches. Heck, I’ve heard some at my daughter’s U14 soccer games.
It is naïve to apply normal sensibilities and corporate America workplace rules to the NFL locker room. Anybody who has stepped into one knows that.
I was bullied in the Dolphins locker room. It was back in 1986. I was a journalism student at the University of Miami, working as a freelancer for the St. Petersburg Times. I was with a small group of reporters interviewing linebacker John Offerdahl when I noticed that dozens of players (and reporters) were looking in my direction and laughing. I deduced right away that I was the target of some inside joke. My eyes welled up, but I held in the tears and continued the interview only to discover later that a naked offensive lineman had been gyrating behind my back during the interview.
Don Shula was the Dolphins head coach at the time. Dan Marino was the quarterback. Both were professional with the media. The lineman’s piggish behavior was not their fault. It was not indicative of the team’s personality. It was one jerk who thought he was being funny and went too far.
That is but one story I could tell. I have shed plenty of tears over the years. A Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker once shoved me to the ground, and was fined by the NFL. I have been called vulgar names in countless locker rooms over the years. I know what it feels like to be picked on.
I have the utmost respect for Jonathan Martin and his family. I wrote a profile on him during training camp, found him to be quiet, humble, and very smart. After learning about his Harvard family background, and that he studied the Classics at Stanford, the first question I asked him was, “Why is a guy like you playing football?” He explained that he loved the game, loved the strategy. I went home and told my husband about this unusual player I had just interviewed, and how I thought he probably had a hard time fitting in.
Will the NFL change for Jonathan Martin? Maybe it should, but I doubt it will. One thing is certain. This is not just about the Dolphins.