An independent report into the bullying scandal that enveloped the Miami Dolphins locker room during the 2013 season paints a picture of work place harassment that, even by the standards of an NFL locker room, was “at times offensive and unacceptable.”
The report, commissioned by the NFL and conducted by attorney Ted Wells and the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, is based on text message and email evidence along with interviews with players, coaches, and Dolphins management. It found “that three starters on the Dolphins offensive line, Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey, engaged in a pattern of harassment directed at not only Jonathan Martin, but also another young Dolphins offensive lineman and an assistant trainer.” The report found “that the assistant trainer repeatedly was the object of racial slurs and other racially derogatory language; that the other offensive lineman was subjected to homophobic name-calling and improper physical touching; and that Martin was taunted on a persistent basis with sexually explicit remarks about his sister and his mother and at times ridiculed with racial insults and other offensive comments.”
Martin left the team in November and later alleged that harassment from Incognito had contributed to his departure. The Dolphins suspended Incognito indefinitely later that month. Incognito has asserted that the details of the case would exonerate him — “Dear Jon Martin….. The truth is going to bury you and your entire ‘camp’. You could have told the truth the entire time..,” Incognito tweeted on February 12.
But the report rejected all claims that Martin had fabricated details of his harassment to excuse his departure from the team, and it paints Incognito as the ring-leader of perpetual abuse on the Dolphins offensive line. Though many have excused the behavior by saying that it is typical in an NFL locker room environment, the report concludes that the harassment went beyond even relaxed standards for work place appropriateness that could be applied to professional sports.
“We did not approach this assignment expecting to discover behavior that society might anticipate in, say, an accounting firm or law office,” the report’s authors state. “For better or worse, profanity is an accepted fact of life in competitive sports, and professional athletes commonly indulge in conduct inappropriate in other social settings.”
“But limits should exist,” they continue. “Even viewed in context, some of the behavior and language discussed in this Report is inappropriate by any reasonable measure of conduct becoming of a professional athlete.” The authors concluded that the “treatment of Martin and others in the Miami Dolphins organization at times was offensive and unacceptable in any environment, including” the world of professional sports.
Far from minor infringements on an NFL career, the report concludes that Incognito’s treatment of Martin and others in the Dolphins organization “bears many hallmarks of a classic case of bullying” and “fits, to some extent, the classic pattern for workplace bullying.”
The details of the harassment are lewd and vulgar. Martin told the investigators that “he was most offended by persistent vulgar references to members of his family,” and that Incognito and his cohorts often taunted him with threats that they would “run train on your sister” and “bang the shit out of her and spit on her and treat her like shit.” Martin told investigators “that his transparent discomfort only increased the frequency and intensity of the insults.” Martin, who is black, also asserted that Incognito, who is white, “made jokes about slavery” and “called him a ‘nigger’ to his face.” During his rookie season, Martin told investigators, Incognito, Pouncey, and Jerry regularly called Martin a “cunt,” a “bitch,” a “pussy,” and a “faggot.”
Text messages between Martin and Incognito, released earlier this month, seemed to show the two as friends, but the report states that Martin attempted to befriend his abusers “in an effort to reduce their abuse.” Sometimes, it says, he “participated in their vulgar banter in an effort to fit in.” Those responses, the authors concluded after talking to doctors and experts, are typical for someone who is the subject of abuse. Martin told investigators that he “came to view his failure to stand up to his teammates as a personal shortcoming.”
Martin’s distress is clear from messages sent to family members. “I figured out a major source of my anxiety,” he told his mother in a message dated April 22, 2013. “I’m a push over, a people pleaser. … I let people talk about me, say anything to my face, and I just take it, laugh it off, even when I know they are intentionally trying to disrespect me.”
Martin told investigators that he had been the subject of bullying throughout his life, an assertion backed up by claims made in his messages to his family. It’s easy to see Martin as a man with deep struggles about himself and his playing career. In a May 2013 text message to a friend, Martin listed reasons to keep playing football and reasons to quit. Among the reasons to quit, he listed that he was “unable to socialize with my teammates in their crude manner,” that “maybe I’ll start to LIKE myself,” and that he could lose weight and “feel good about my body.” He also listed “won’t die from CTE” as a benefit of quitting. While Martin had suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts already, the harassment and abuse at the hands of his teammates only made it worse, the report stated.
The report found that while the verbal abuse was a contributing factor to Martin’s decision to leave the Dolphins, it was not the abusers’ intent to force him to leave the team. It found that Martin’s on-field struggles were also a source of his anxiety. And it stated that other instances that had been reported in the media — including a supposed physical altercation at Pouncey’s house during a Christmas party — were found to have been exaggerated.
But the harassment was not limited to Martin. Incognito, Pouncey, and Jerry often referred to another Dolphins offensive lineman as a “fag” or “faggot” and accused the player of “sucking dick.” The report notes that the anti-gay harassment is particularly troubling given the recent coming out of University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who could become the league’s first openly gay player.
The trio also routinely harassed a Dolphins assistant trainer who was born in Japan. The players regularly referred to the trainer using ethnic slurs, calling him a “fucking chink,” a “Jap,” or a “Chinaman.” On the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the report states, Incognito, Jerry, and Pouncey “donned traditional Japanese headbands” and “threatened to harm the Assistant Trainer physically in retaliation for the Pearl Harbor attack.”
In some instances, Dolphins coaches were aware of the abuse. The report states that offensive line coach Jim Turner was both aware and participated in homophobic abuse of Player A. But largely, Dolphins coaches were unaware. Neither head coach Joe Philbin and the Dolphins front office knew of the abuse, according to the report, which found no support for claims made that Dolphins coaches had instructed Incognito to “toughen up” Martin through such behavior. Incognito directly refuted assertions that he had been instructed to make Martin tougher.
The Dolphins had anti-harassment policies in place to prevent this sort of treatment, and according to the report, Philbin repeatedly reiterated to players that they were not to harass their teammates. The report commends the Dolphins for taking steps since the scandal broke to improve those policies and the ways in which they are enforced.
The report is damning for Incognito, Pouncey, and Jerry. But it is also damning for the Dolphins and the NFL as a whole, even if team and league management were unaware of it. The report makes it clear that this should be a wake up call to a league that is on the brink of accepting its first openly gay player, and that it should be a siren that the NFL needs to take steps to combat this type of harassment. The NFL has bolstered its anti-discrimination policies in recent years, but it’s clear that more needs to be done on all fronts, particularly when it comes to making players feel that they can report instances like these without fear of retribution or negative consequence for their career. The report concludes with a call for stronger policies and efforts to reduce this sort of abuse, which shouldn’t be tolerated in any work place, even one where “football culture” reigns.
“As all must surely recognize, the NFL is not an ordinary workplace. Professional football is a rough, contact sport played by men of exceptional size, speed, strength and athleticism. But even the largest, strongest and fleetest person may be driven to despair by bullying, taunting and constant insults. We encourage the creation of new workplace conduct rules and guidelines that will help ensure that players respect each other as professionals and people.”
ThinkProgress intern Mason Atkins contributed to this report.