The microscope on the Dolphins’ Bullygate saga — from the explosion of national, beyond-sports headlines in November to the details of last week’s 140-page NFL/Ted Wells report — has somehow seen one aspect of the bizarre tale go largely unexplored.
Simply: How it could have been allowed to happen, and why here.
The answer goes beyond the convenient extremes of one man (Richie Incognito) being notoriously experienced in boorish, Neanderthal behavior, and another (Jonathan Martin) whose emotional issues made him a ripe target.
We first thought this was as uncomplicated as one bully and one victim.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The Wells findings broadened the scope slightly to two teammates joining Incognito in the abuse and two victims of the harassment in addition to Martin.
And still nobody is asking (let alone answering): How could it have been allowed to go on? There are some 75 people in an NFL locker room community every day, including players and the medical/training and equipment staffs.
Where were all of these other eyes and ears who surely heard that bullying behavior was going on and more likely witnessed it?
The answer is that sports’ “code of silence” kicked in. You don’t snitch. A football family keeps its secrets.
That’s why, to this day, Dolphins players side with Incognito over Martin in all of this.
It goes beyond that, though. Dig deeper to the real reason that Bullygate was allowed to start, fester and continue.
The Dolphins were, and are, a team without a spine. A roster without any semblance of the leadership that forms any good club’s backbone, that polices itself, that draws hard lines on what’s OK in the inner sanctum and what is not.
You could look even higher than the locker room level for the void of leadership.
Look to an owner Stephen Ross, who was a football novice before becoming majority owner in 2009.
Look to the former general manager, Jeff Ireland, a lightweight in his field, not accomplished enough to either earn respect from players or instill fear.
Look to a rookie head coach, Joe Philbin, who was understandably more concerned with adjusting to his new role and trying to win games than wondering if, below his office, his players might be tormenting one another.
Look to the blind-mice assistant coaches, including one, Jim Turner, who even participated in the inappropriate behavior. (Blowup dolls, Jim? Really!?)
Everyone bears his burden in this. Again, though, for me, it starts at the player level, with the teammates who like to call themselves “brothers” allowing this to go on with mouths closed — because nobody was strong enough to stand up and shout, “Stop!”
No leader was anywhere to be found when Martin was being taunted to tears in a pattern of abuse, or when a second young lineman and an assistant trainer also were being blatantly harassed. No leader was anywhere when Incognito and cohorts Mike Pouncey and John Jerry were running rampant with their profane, juvenile, cruel behavior.
Here is the scary part: Incognito and Pouncey were the team leaders, or at least two you might have cited before both shamed themselves. They were on the team’s “leadership council.” That’s like a volunteer fire department staffed by arsonists.
(It is telling that Pouncey, the only one of the three likely to survive this and remain on the team, has been mum since the report implicating him. No apology. No denial. No explanation. Not a solitary post on Twitter. Nada.)
Where are the Dolphins players speaking up against Incognito or for Martin? Or even just espousing how what went on mustn’t continue?
Ryan Tannehill should be a team leader by his position but seems hesitant to take on the added responsibility. Paul Soliai has the heft and intimidating demeanor to be a leader; so where was he in all this? Where were you, Brian Hartline, Tyson Clabo, Bryant McKinnie and Randy Starks? Where were you, Cam Wake?
Too few on this roster have the combination of personality, accomplishment and time with the club to be a natural leader. The few who do abdicate the responsibility — or at least sure did in the Bullygate mess.
Former Dolphins receiver Oronde Gadsden said that, back in the day, an issue like this might have been weeded out by strong leaders like Zach Thomas, Jason Taylor, Daryl Gardener or Tim Bowen.
“I don’t know who that is in this locker room,” he said.
Can you imagine Ray Lewis putting up with this in his Ravens’ locker room?
“We would have snatched the Ravens patch off [the bully’s] chest, kicked him in his butt and told him he wasn’t welcome here,” former Raven Bart Scott said.
Forget that what Incognito and the others did was just wrong.
It was also dumb pragmatically, on a football level. It hurt the team. Here you had a young starting lineman, Martin, struggling just to improve his technique and do his job, but instead of help and support you burden his mind with distraction and torment?
Even if the Dolphins didn’t have a team leader willing to stand up to Incognito on moral grounds, somebody should have stood up simply because Martin’s off-field anguish surely hurt his performance and thus that of an already bad offensive line.
The confronting of Incognito needn’t have been a scene before the entire team, it could have been handled in private. But that would have required what was and is lacking in the Dolphins: A leader bigger than Incognito’s bluster. A leader big enough to put fairness above any code and his team above any nonsense.
It’s funny to me that Jonathan Martin is the only one who gets labeled as weak in all of this for not having the nerve to stand up to the bully — when he has the company of every single other player on this team.
Everybody was weak.
Nobody stood up.