Three Takeaways From The Investigation Into The Miami Dolphins Bullying Scandal


Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin

The independent report into the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal paints a damning picture of three players — offensive linemen Richie Incognito, Mike Pouncey, and John Jerry — who bullied and harassed fellow player Jonathan Martin, another unidentified offensive lineman (“Player A”), and a member of the Dolphins training staff throughout the last two seasons. The report details lewd and vulgar language, including racial, homophobic, and ethnic slurs, and inappropriate sexual behavior and commentary used to denigrate and harass the players and the trainer.

The report’s author, investigator Ted Wells, concludes that the three players’ behavior went well beyond the type of ritualistic hazing that marks “locker room culture,” reaching “unacceptable and offensive” levels that constitute workplace bullying and shouldn’t be tolerated in any profession. You can read the full report here and our account of it here.

The easiest takeaway from the report is that Richie Incognito, the supposed ring-leader of this abuse, is hardly the type of teammate any reasonable person would want. But even if it’s impossible to know how widespread this sort of behavior is in the NFL, it seems reasonable to suspect that Incognito and his cohorts Pouncey and Jerry aren’t the only ones to blame. With that in mind, here are three takeaways from the scandal that should both hold others accountable for it and work to make incidents like this less likely in the future:

1. The Miami Dolphins need to clean house. And that includes firing head coach Joe Philbin.

The report clears the Miami Dolphins coaching staff, including head coach Joe Philbin, and front office management of any involvement in the scandal. Of Philbin, the report’s authors write:

We find that Head Coach Joe Philbin was not aware of the mistreatment of Martin, Player A, or the Assistant Trainer. After interviewing Coach Philbin at length, we were impressed with his commitment to promoting integrity and accountability throughout the Dolphins organization — a point echoed by many players. We are convinced that had Coach Philbin learned of the underlying misconduct, he would have intervened promptly to ensure that Martin and others were treated with dignity.

That explanation is too simple to accept, even if you believe the premise that Philbin didn’t know what was happening under his nose. This explanation doesn’t answer the most fundamental questions: Why didn’t Philbin know that multiple players on his team were abusing two players and a member of his staff? Why was he not made aware of the abuse before Martin left the team? It’s unreasonable to expect head coaches to know everything that happens in their organization. It’s not unreasonable to expect that a head coach should know about abuse that reaches this level.

Philbin is responsible for creating an atmosphere on his team that doesn’t encourage or allow this type of behavior, and that takes more than a couple speeches at team dinners or a few non-harassment policies. It requires surrounding himself with responsible people who would report this type of abuse — not participate in it, as Dolphins offensive line coach Jim Turner apparently did. It requires creating an atmosphere where players who see this sort of abuse take a leadership role on their team and report it to their coaches. And it requires an atmosphere where players like Martin and Player A or staffers like the abused assistant trainer can report it to coaches or front office personnel without fear of retribution.

That didn’t happen. So while Philbin might not have known about it — and I think it’s generous to grant him that level of leniency — his ignorance of what was happening on his football team is ultimately his fault. He is responsible. And if Incognito, Pouncey, and Jerry are all held responsible for their actions, Philbin and other members of his coaching staff should be held responsible for their inactions as well. Anything less is inexcusable.

But this isn’t Philbin’s failure alone. The report also cleared the Dolphins front office staff:

We found no evidence that the Dolphins’ front office was aware of the conduct Martin found abusive. Nor did we find any support for the allegation that Dolphins management directed incognito to engage in the behavior that is the subject of Martin’s complaints.

Again, why weren’t they aware of this? The Dolphins may have policies in place that say not to act like this. But clearly, those policies weren’t sufficient in creating an atmosphere that prevented players from acting like this. Perhaps Martin, Player A, and the trainer didn’t feel they could turn to coaches for assistance. At the very least, they should have been able to go to general manager Jeff Ireland (who has since left the team) or someone else on the Dolphins’ front office staff. That they felt they couldn’t paints the picture of an organization that may have said the right things about tolerance and harassment but that didn’t promote an actual atmosphere that would prevent it. For that, someone needs to be held accountable, not cleared simply because they didn’t know about something they should have known about.

The Dolphins have hardly shown themselves to be an organization of competence on the football field in recent years. This scandal, however, shows that the incompetence stretches beyond the gridiron. There’s a severe lack of leadership in Miami, from players to coaches to the front office. New policies might help change that, but not if the people in charge can’t surround themselves with responsible people who help create an organizational atmosphere that prevents absurd behavior like this. Incognito, Pouncey, and Jerry — the trio of abusers — and offensive line coach Jim Turner should all face severe punishment as a result of this scandal. But so too should plenty of others in the Dolphins organization, because this was more than a locker room scandal. This was a total institutional failure. The report may not come to that conclusion, but from reading it, it’s impossible to see it as anything else.

2. The NFL needs to strengthen its non-discrimination policies, its code of conduct, and its enforcement of them.

Sunday, the NFL was hit with news it has been waiting for for years. It’s about to get its first openly gay player, something it has spent an ample amount of time and energy preparing for. The league adopted a non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation in 2011; it made that policy even stronger last summer. That policy isn’t limited to sexual orientation. It also prevents discrimination based on gender, race, and ethnicity.

That policy, quite obviously, isn’t always enough. Perhaps the sort of behavior that so severely crosses the lines of decency into the realm of the inhumane isn’t endemic to football. But given the early responses from other players who said these issues should have been kept in the locker room and dealt with internally, it’s quite clear that the sort of behavior that approaches or crosses lines of basic decency isn’t wholly unique to Miami. The report nearly acknowledges that fact when it states that the authors didn’t approach their investigation with the standards of an accounting firm or a legal office, but with those appropriate to the more inappropriate world of professional athletics. It’s reasonable to suspect that gay, racial, and ethnic slurs and other abuse under the guise of ritualistic hazing happen elsewhere in the NFL, if not to this extent.

They shouldn’t be. The NFL might not have known about this scandal. But while the ultimate failure lies in Miami, this is an NFL problem too. If the league wants to welcome Michael Sam and other gay players — and if it wants to be a safe place for players and workers of all races and ethnicities and backgrounds (including those with mental health issues) — it has to do more than enact strong non-discrimination policies and codes of conduct. It has to enforce them, and it has to do so in a manner that creates the attitude around the league that this sort of behavior isn’t welcome. And that means it has to apply that standard broadly. Punishing the players involved won’t be enough, because as I said above, this is an institutional failure. Creating that atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance requires getting coaches and executives to buy in too. And it requires punishing them when they either fail or actively promote behavior like this.

The NFL has said and done the right things when it comes to tolerance of LGBT people and everyone else. Those words, however, are useless without action and enforcement that applies to everyone involved. This gives a league that says it’s open to all types of people a chance to start creating a league-wide atmosphere that proves that to be true. It shouldn’t miss that chance.

3. The NFL Players Association needs to lead the way in changing this culture, even if it has no choice but to defend the trio of abusers.

Frankly, this scandal puts the NFLPA in a tight spot. The union has a responsibility to represent all players, so it will have no choice but to defend Incognito, Pouncey, and Jerry if and when they are punished. And it should defend them.

But it should also put its foot down on harassment and workplace bullying. One of NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith’s key issues has been the promotion of workplace safety, and the ability to show up to work and do your job is a basic privilege that any NFL player — white, black, gay, straight, depressed or not — should be able to enjoy. The NFLPA was one of the key drivers behind the implementation of the new non-discrimination policy. It should also take a role in strengthening those policies and ensuring they are enforced.

Taking a bold stance on Martin’s side might not be easy for the union. Many players support hazing as an integral part of becoming close with their teammates and integrating rookies into locker room culture. Many players won’t see some of the language and actions included in the Wells report as problematic. Smith and his union, however, should take a leadership role in drawing clear lines between basic rituals and abuse, bullying, and harassment (or, ideally, in eliminating any sort of hazing and abuse altogether). Pressuring the NFL to make football a safe space for all players is the union’s responsibility, and it shouldn’t forget that its mission to protect players goes beyond on-field injuries.

The union should also take a role in ensuring that the players involved aren’t the only ones punished. Accountability for executives and management was a major theme of Smith’s keynote address at American University’s Washington School of Law this week, and that should continue through this scandal. But even as it defends Incognito, Pouncey, and Jerry, it shouldn’t forget that the more important aspect here is that players it represents were abused and harassed in the workplace and that it has an obligation to help prevent this from happening on any other team in the future — even if that requires actions that aren’t popular among some of its members. Smith talks often about how he sees his role as helping to craft young men who are upstanding members of teams and their communities. Teaching them how to treat each other with respect is a fundamental part of that mission, and if the NFLPA doesn’t take a lead in fostering a more tolerant, accepting atmosphere, it will lose some of its ability to criticize the NFL for falling short in the same areas.