Goodell needs to send message and eliminate culture of harassment

Friday February 14th, 2014

The Wells Report called Richie Incognito's actions toward Jonathan Martin "flagrantly inappropriate."

There are two things you need to understand about the Wells Report on Richie Incognito. One is that Incognito called teammate Jonathan Martin all sorts of racial epithets, he seems to treat women the way some people treat paper cups, and he taunted and harassed other players and an assistant trainer.

The other thing: Incognito knew most of that would be in the Wells Report, and he still thought the report would make him look good.

Why did Incognito believe that, after eight NFL seasons with three franchises? What does that say about the NFL? He thought his behavior was fine. That is the big issue here -- bigger than Incognito and Martin, and bigger than the Miami Dolphins.

FARRAR: Report showed Incognito exhibited a pattern of harassment

Does NFL commissioner Roger Goodell want an NFL that makes Richie Incognito a team captain? Or does he want a league that welcomes Michael Sam?

Wells said Incognito's conduct was "flagrantly inappropriate," but Incognito didn't think so. Read the report and you will understand why.

Incognito joked with one teammate about guns that were "perfect for shooting black people," and the teammate laughed. He endlessly called another teammate gay because he thought it was funny, and his offensive line coach, Jim Turner, was so unoffended that he joined in. Turner bought the linemen female blow-up dolls as gifts -- but bought the other lineman a male blow-up doll. (Turner told Wells he doesn't remember doing this, but Wells calls him a liar: "We do not believe that Turner forgot this incident, which many others recalled.")

The big takeaway here is not that every NFL player behaves like Incognito. Most don't. But many NFL locker rooms would have accepted Incognito's behavior. That is the league's problem, and Goodell didn't create it, but he has a chance to address it. Michael Sam deserves that much.

Sam, the Missouri star, should become the league's first openly gay player. Wells mentions him by name in the report, and writes: "The frequent use of homophobic insults undermines this goal."

Uh, yeah, I think it's fair to say that. Goodell and the NFL should change the culture, and that starts with suspensions for those involved. Let the rest of the league know workplace harassment is not OK.

We will now find out how seriously the NFL takes this. The report took more than three months to produce, but it was conveniently released after the Super Bowl, a week into the Winter Olympics, on a Friday (when public relations professionals traditionally drop their bad news), on the cusp of NBA All-Star weekend.

The timing alone should engender skepticism, but the report makes up for it. It is thorough and damning.

Read the full Wells Report (.pdf)

It's time for the NFL to end this boys-will-be-boys nonsense. These are men. Make them act like it. A little teasing is fine, but if it's not OK in the NFL's New York offices, it should not be OK in an NFL locker room. A workplace is a workplace, whether the employees wear neckties or helmets.

Look, I have colleagues, too, and we don't address each other as Mr. and Ms. and speak in polite and perfectly constructed sentences all the time. Colleagues become friends, and most of us occasionally rib our friends. I have made 1,000 jokes to colleagues that I would never make publicly.

But it has never occurred to me to simulate having sex with a co-worker's sister as I opened my laptop, or address him by using the n-word or "stinky Pakistani" while simultaneously saying he is "not black enough." If you have any sense of common decency, you don't refer to anybody as a "faggot" and ask male co-workers where their boyfriend is, as though that is an insult.

Incognito apparently did all that. Yet this was not a simple case of bullying. The 148-page Wells Report portrays a complex Martin/Incognito relationship that does not fall tidily into our either/or view of the situation. Incognito had some help from teammate Mike Pouncey, and Wells acknowledges that Incognito "did not intend to drive Martin from the team or cause him lasting emotional injury."

Martin believed that responding physically would make it worse. Incognito was oblivious to signs that Martin did not like being called things like a "half-n--- piece of s---." According to Wells, Martin blamed his teammates for his depression and suicidal thoughts, but it's foolish for the rest of us to claim we know what causes a stranger's depression and suicidal thoughts.

The Dolphins voted Incognito team captain. That gave him reason to believe his conduct was not only acceptable, but ideal.

Can Sam handle that environment? Probably. But does the league want him to enter it?

Sam was not considered a first-round pick before his announcement, and he surely won't be one now. But whenever he is drafted -- and even if he isn't drafted -- he will get invited to an NFL training camp. What happens there will say a lot about the NFL.

Sam's situation should not be that remarkable. He is a man applying for a job, and he deserves a shot at it. The fact he is openly gay is only a big deal because it is new. Pro sports leagues have made men like Richie Incognito feel welcome and gay men feel unwelcome.

Goodell can use the Wells Report to punish Incognito. He can see Incognito as a villain now, and that's fine. But he should remember: the Dolphins saw Incognito as a leader, and that is what should disturb him.

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