One of the saddest locker room sagas and biggest off-field embarrassments in Miami Dolphins history reached a formal conclusion Friday. But whether the “Bullygate” controversy really has ended is doubtful.
Repercussions likely will follow in the form of punishments levied by the club or the NFL. Lawsuits might yet be filed related to a workplace environment fraught with harassment and taunting.
The independent examination ordered by the league in November took the form Friday of a detailed 140-page report by investigating attorney Ted Wells, and his conclusion was that Richie Incognito indeed was the bully in all of this and that Jonathan Martin told the truth about his victim’s role.
The two principals were not the only ones involved, though, which is a big reason this matter might not yet be over.
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The Wells report found that current Dolphins Mike Pouncey and John Jerry joined Incognito in the harassment, and that victims in addition to Martin included a second young lineman thought to be Andrew McDonald, and an assistant trainer.
Explicitly the report details how the three implicated players taunted their victims. The language is sexually vulgar, racial and homophobic. In ways shocking, cruel and stunningly juvenile, Incognito, Pouncey and Jerry lend the most unsavory, literal connotation to the phrase “offensive” linemen.
Incognito and Martin are not expected to return to the team, with the former gone by the club’s choice and the latter by the player’s.
But what to do now with Pouncey and Jerry? And with Jim Turner, the offensive line coach?
Turner must be fired. He won’t be a scapegoat because that suggests innocent victim. Turner will have earned his dismissal by having direct oversight of the involved players, by being aware of some of the harassment, and by doing nothing to stop it. Perhaps worse, he even participated, once giving female blowup dolls as gag Christmas gifts to most of his linemen — but a male doll to a lineman he knew had been teased as being gay.
The only real question with Turner is whether the league might suspend him before the team can fire him.
Pouncey and Jerry also face likely discipline, although the lack of precedent for this — for the fallout of bullying in an NFL locker room — makes predicting punishments guesswork.
For now Dolfans should be relieved the brunt of the controversy is past. This matter swallowed the second half of the season and became a national, beyond-sports story — a lesson that bullying is not confined only to schoolyards. Reflecting that, the report concluded that even pro football players “may be driven to despair by bullying, taunting and constant insults.”
Martin surely was, admitting as much in distraught texts to his parents. In one he said he had been sobbing in a yacht bathroom, his temporary escape from continued taunting during a team outing.
You can debate all day if you’d like whether Martin was “tough enough” or “cut out” for the rough, often-ribald world of the NFL locker room. It is beside the point. That’s just a different way of somehow suggesting Martin played a role in his own bullying. Not standing up for himself to your liking is not tantamount to “asking for it,” any more than a victim’s short skirt justifies a rape defense.
This embarrassed a once-proud franchise, but that’s not on Martin.
This embarrassed the Dolphins because Incognito, Pouncey and Jerry demonstrated that gross immaturity does not always expire as one ventures into adulthood. Incognito took to Twitter as recently as this week, defending himself by disparaging Martin and his agent even as the damning Wells report was set to come out.
Some of the stuff in this report shocks the sensibilities of even a veteran journalist who has worked inside sports’ locker room culture for decades.
Repeated sexually explicit threats and comments directed to Martin about his sister. Homophobic taunts against the unnamed teammate. A Japanese-born trainer subjected to racist mocking.
Just terrible, all of it. Over-the-top and inexcusable. This was not boys-will-be-boys. This was not a natural byproduct of the macho culture of sports. This does not happen everywhere. This was a plain outrage.
The Wells report concluded the harassment “did not intend to drive Martin from the team or cause him lasting emotional injury,” but one still imagines litigation directed at the club for its hostile workplace environment might be forthcoming. One also imagines Pouncey and Jerry will not and should not escape this unpunished.
Two years ago the New Orleans Saints endured a scandal of their own, “Bountygate,” and resulting league penalties were severe. They included the head coach, Sean Payton, being suspended for an entire season for knowing but not stopping a system of payments to players for hard hits that hurt opponents or drove them from games.
I do not anticipate similar penalties arising from this. The Saints matter involved other teams, and inflicting injuries. Bullygate, however serious, was an internal matter.
Also, the Wells report specifically states that Martin never reported the abuse to the Dolphins organization, and that coach Joe Philbin and the front office were unaware of the harassment.
This does not entirely exonerate Philbin, although arguing he “should” have known is pointless. He didn’t. If he knew and turned a blind eye or laughed it off — then find him at fault and weigh a punishment. As it is, the Wells report praised Philbin for the seriousness with which he regarded this and for his intentions to make sure a locker room climate of harassment and disrespect does not continue. The report called the Dolphins’ actions to improve the workplace environment “commendable.”
Philbin was a second-year head coach, and this was a controversy the NFL had never before experienced, so to suggest he “should” have known or to place onerous responsibility on him would be wrong. I doubt Philbin will suffer any penalties from this, and he shouldn’t.
The same cannot be said for Turner, whose departure should be quick, and explained with unequivocal condemnation.
I thought of the Dolphins’ locker room environment that led to Bullygate as I heard University of Missouri defender Michael Sam say he is gay this week and volunteer himself to become the NFL’s first openly gay player.
It isn’t the “system” or the “culture” that might be hostile to Sam, and, thankfully, it isn’t the majority, or hopefully anything close to it.
But be assured the Richie Incognitos are not alone. He wasn’t even alone in his own Miami locker room.
The NFL will formulate an official new code of conduct arising from this, but isn’t it sad there need to be written rules for not harassing a teammate? For treating others with basic respect?
What NFL locker rooms need more than a code of conduct is self-policing by players, most of whom are decent guys who want nothing to do with the misguided, hurtful, Neanderthal “humor” of the Incognitos.
It is the archaic locker room code of silence that let the Dolphins’ problem get to where it did. How many teammates saw and heard Incognito, Pouncey and Jerry repeatedly inflict themselves but did and said nothing?
A code of conduct won’t remedy that as much as a hard look in the mirror might.