Page six of the 144-page report offers an acknowledgement of the uncharted road ahead.
“Many of the issues raised by this investigation,” reads lawyer Ted Wells’ anticipated report on workplace conduct at the Miami Dolphins, “appear to be unprecedented.”
During the more than four months since Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin suddenly walked away from the team in Week 9 of the regular season, a spotlight has been shined on a question that doesn’t have a clear answer: How, and in what ways, can locker-room culture be policed?
'Pattern of harrassment'
The NFL-commissioned investigation about what happened on the Dolphins, assigned to Wells and the independent New York law firm for which he works, exposes that culture in a way that is jarring. The report assigns blame to three Dolphins offensive linemen—Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey—for a “pattern of harassment” directed not only at Martin, but also another young lineman and an assistant trainer on the team.
The evidence presented includes text messages and derogatory behavior of a racist, sexually explicit, homophobic or misogynistic nature—starting with the casual usage of the n-word, the see-you-next-Tuesday word and the f-word that is a homosexual slur. This comes at the end of a week when draft prospect Michael Sam’s announcement that he is gay has sparked debate about how NFL locker rooms will handle their first publicly gay player.
Now, it’s up to the NFL and the Dolphins to act. But how?
A Culture Gone Wrong
The Martin-Incognito case isn’t an indictment of the NFL locker room as a whole, Greg Bedard writes, but a case study in what can happen when it’s left to operate without restraints or mature leadership. FULL STORY
The Wells report focused on deconstructing Martin’s reasons for leaving the team during his second NFL season, and made its only recommendation in the conclusion. It advocates the creation of “new workplace conduct rules and guidelines that will help ensure that players respect each other as professionals and people.” But for any future policy to carry weight (the Dolphins, in 2013, distributed a policy against harassment the offending players had signed off on) the NFL and the Dolphins certainly understand the time is now to make a stand.
And while there is no precedent for handling the specific issues presented in this case, the NFL has demonstrated—Bountygate in New Orleans being the clearest example—that commissioner Roger Goodell is not afraid of harsh punishment to spur a culture change. That case might also be the closest precedent in terms of the scope of active players and coaches who might be affected.
Pouncey is under contract with the Dolphins; Incognito and Jerry are both free agents, so the ground-level of their punishment might very well be teams electing not to sign them. Currently on the Dolphins staff are offensive line coach Jim Turner, who is depicted in the report as enabling and encouraging harassment between his players, and head trainer Kevin O’Neill, who allegedly did not intervene at the racial insults directed toward the Asian-American assistant trainer. Head coach Joe Philbin played a role in getting Martin help from a psychiatrist when he learned of his depression and mental health issues, but his purported oblivion to what was happening in the locker room reflects poorly on his command of his team.
The NFL can also be expected to factor in dishonesty with the league-appointed investigators when doling out punishments—as it did with Saints coach Sean Payton, whose attempted cover-ups during the Bountygate investigation played a role in his season-long suspension. Incognito asked his teammates to destroy the fine book he maintained, and Pouncey, Jerry and Turner are explicitly cited in the report as not being “credible.”
Mike Pouncey (51) and John Jerry (74) likely will be facing punishment from the NFL for their roles in the harassment of Jonathan Martin. (Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
There’s also the matter of returning to work for Martin, the young offensive lineman and the assistant trainer identified by the report as victims of the harassment. If there’s any question about the challenges they face, look no further than the “Judas” fines—page 129 of the report—the veteran offensive linemen levied in their kangaroo court.
Will the report change locker-room culture?
Martin must feel vindicated, but what does that mean for his football future? Right now, where it stands is that he wants one—wherever that might be.
“Jonathan called me Wednesday and said, ‘I feel great. I’m so excited to play football and get on the field,’ ” his agent, Kenny Zuckerman, said. “He’ll be on the football field 100 percent this season.”
The independent investigation offered just one misstep by Martin, in not reporting the abuse and trying to handle his grievances within the Dolphins organization. Instead, the case played out in the national media—but perhaps, on a much bigger scale, that’s not the worst thing. Perhaps this could be a vehicle to positive change.
“Trying to make NFL locker rooms conform to the norm," says a former-player-turned-assistant-coach, "well, good luck with that.”
That’s easier said than done, of course. As an example, the uphill battle to change how players report and view concussions is proof that culture change can be slower than we’d like. That’s particularly true with an issue like this—a locker-room culture that few outsiders understand, and the line for what’s okay and what’s not a subjective one that can vary from person to person.
Business buzzwords like “code of conduct” might sound good, but the reality is that an NFL team, as one former player and current NFL assistant coach mused, simply can't be run like Microsoft.
“Trying to make NFL locker rooms conform to the norm, well, good luck with that,” the coach said. “Don’t get me wrong—it’s changed a lot, because the world is changing, and the leadership or owners are changing. However, the locker room is not changing fast enough.”
That doesn’t mean the NFL and the Dolphins’ reactions won’t make an impact. The power of tackling an unprecedented issue is the ability to create a precedent.