After one year on the team, and alleged bullying by his teammates, Offensive Lineman Jonathan Martin will not finish out his contract with the Miami Dolphins. He cited daily harassment in the workplace, especially by Offensive Lineman Richie Incognito. The incidents took the form of back-and-forth bantering, including racial, aggressive and sexually charged comments, which in October 2013 purportedly caused Martin, who is Black, to take an abrupt leave from the team, become hospitalized, seek counseling, and move back with his family. Martin explained that he engaged in the teasing because he wanted to be friends with Incognito, who is white. He said he did not tell the Dolphins coach, Joe Philbin. Incognito’s career path changed, as well: in November he was suspended and was required to sit out the last eight games of the season.
Once the scandal was publicized, Incognito’s attorney made a statement that Martin was fabricating allegations to cover up for poor performance on the field. Questions now arise as to the team atmosphere that caused Martin to leave, and how the workplace environment affected his playing.
The NFL investigated the incident and the role of Coach Philbin, who said he knew nothing about the bullying. There will be changes for 2014 and neither player will continue on the team. Incognito has become a free agent and is expected to sign with a different team. Martin is expected to be traded or released prior to the remaining two years left on his contract.
On February 14, the NFL released a report on investigation of the incident, which has been called “Bully Gate.” In the report, the workplace that is the Miami Dolphins locker room was called “more toxic” than that of other teams. It further described the atmosphere as “beyond the pale,” “systemic,” “repeated,” and “very personal,” in that it could literally cause a team member to come to tears. Changes would be due.
Moreover, the report identified the bullying as “a classic case,” where a person in a position of power harasses someone less powerful. The cost to the organization is huge; employee turnover and decreased morale cost the company in terms of lost skill and expertise. Other factors are lost work time, workers’ compensation claims, disability and health care claims that include counseling and early retirement. Moreover, the reputation of the organization is negatively affected.
Even in the face of violation of a policy, a person may be repeatedly and harshly abused in his workplace, but no federal law in the U.S. exists to protect against workplace bullying. Of note, 25 states have tried to introduce laws on the topic, but none were accepted.
The impact of bullying on the NFL at large is to examine behavior and set a new, league-wide code of conduct changes. It would include a punishment mechanism (fines and suspension), to combat deeply entrenched behavior. In other words, locker room culture will be closely examined in an effort to develop new workplace rules.
The result is increased discussion about workplace bullying. Interestingly, the U.S. lags behind many countries in this regard. Across the world, laws are in place to prevent recurrent, brutal, and insidious abuse at work –Australia, Canada, France, Finland, Serbia, and Sweden have some of the strongest rules.
Workplace bullying has been likened to sexual harassment in that there is no way to measure it. Laws can help to identify and reduce incidents and they are effective in making visible and causing changes in perception of what is acceptable. Perhaps the first step is a “civility code,” to be brought to the workplace at large through anti-bullying legislation. The question is, can the lessons of the Miami Dolphins be translated and legislated to the workplace at large?
By Fern Remedi-Brown