The NFL’s Miami Dolphins Investigation Is the Best Report on Bullying I’ve Ever Read

The stadium scene.
Feb. 14 2014 6:23 PM

The Best Report on Bullying I’ve Ever Read

The NFL’s amazing investigation of the Miami Dolphins locker room.

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Even as he struggled with these emotions, Martin built a friendship with Incognito. That’s the right word, and the investigators capture how that can be in all its complexity. Both Martin and Incognito called their relationship “bipolar.” One on one, they shared real warmth and even trust. Martin told Incognito about his mental-health struggles; Incognito counseled him to stay away from drugs so he could be a better player. In front of other players, though, the intimacy was grist for Incognito’s mill of cruelty. And because they were friends—the kind who went to strip clubs together—Incognito knew Martin well enough to suss out his weak points. The investigators write that Martin’s efforts to socialize with Incognito are “consistent with the reaction of a person who is trapped in an abusive situation.” This explains how, after Martin left the team and Incognito texted him to ask how he was feeling, Martin wrote, “It’s insane bro but just know I don’t blame you guys at all.” He blamed himself and he was still, emotionally, under Incognito’s thumb, seeing what the bully wanted him to see.

To their credit, the NFL investigators don’t minimize Martin’s troubles with depression, which date to high school. And they don’t make the mistake of assuming that the harassment alone triggered his onset of depression and suicidal thinking last year. They see the two-way street, the way in which mental-health struggles can be a partial cause as well as an effect of bullying. But they also don’t let Incognito off the hook because Martin was likely prey: “Bullies often pick vulnerable victims, but this makes their conduct more, not less, objectionable.”

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about a point made by Richard Weissbourd and Stephanie M. Jones of the Harvard School of Education: Empathy doesn’t just mean understanding someone else’s feelings. It means valuing them. Otherwise, understanding twists into manipulation. That’s the dark place where fellow feeling took Incognito. Since Martin left the team, Incognito has protested that all the joking was mutual and in keeping with standard locker-room banter. He released selective texts between himself and Martin and tweeted at his former teammate that “the truth is going to bury you.” (To state the obvious: If you have zero impulse control, stay off Twitter.)

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It turns out that Incognito buried himself with the evidence he produced. Incognito and other offensive linemen kept a book of fines, docking players for everything from farting to lateness to wearing ugly shoes. In that book, he fined himself $200 for “breaking Jmart” in the hours after Martin left the team. And then he issued five fines to Martin:

100 pussy
100 pussy
100 pussy
100 pussy
1,000,000.00 pussy

Incognito’s treatment of Martin was part of a pattern. An unnamed assistant trainer got called “Jap,” “Chinaman,” “dirty Communist,” and “North Korean.” Incognito, Jerry, and Pouncey talked to him in a mock Asian accent and gave orders like “give me some water you fucking chink.” Nobody intervened, including head trainer Kevin O’Neill, who allegedly laughed. No one confronted Incognito or his henchmen. The assistant trainer didn’t want to cooperate with the investigators, saying he didn’t want to lose the trust of the team. But he texted to Martin, after Martin’s departure, “They are relentless sometime. … Some day I wanna do exactly what you did today.” The investigators draw the obvious conclusion: The trainer had no standing to fight back and feared the loss of his job if he protested.

A second unnamed teammate, Player A in the report, was relentlessly taunted for being perceived as gay. Incognito, Jerry, and Pouncey mocked him for “sucking dick” and “pissing while sitting down” and asked him, “Where’s your boyfriend?” They also touched his buttocks “in a way that simulated anal penetration.” Incognito told the investigators that Player A got it “every day from everybody, high frequency.” Even Martin joined him, perhaps as part of his failed effort to fit in. Turner, the offensive line coach, shows up here for a loathsome turn. “Aware of the running joke that Player A was gay,” he gave him a special stocking stuffer for Christmas 2012. All the other players got inflatable female dolls (misogynist moment). Player A got an inflatable male doll, according to the players. Turner tries to weasel out of this by telling the investigators he doesn’t remember it. That’s low, not to mention not credible.

The harassment endured by Player A fits with the disturbing homophobia described by former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, the worst of which allegedly came from a coach. It makes me fear for Michael Sam, the star University of Missouri defensive linesman who just came out. It’s well past time for the NFL to join the 21st century. It’s past time for football to change, just as the military has managed to do, now that gay men and women can openly serve. Locker-room camaraderie just can’t depend on bigotry.

It also can’t depend on players living by a rule that dictates putting up with any amount of hazing or harassment and never flinching or telling. Martin never complained about Incognito, and the NFL investigators found that the Dolphins head coach and management didn’t know what was going on. That brings us back to Turner. After Martin left the team, the offensive line coach texted him, repeatedly to come out publicly in defense of Incognito. “DO THE RIGHT THING. NOW,” Turner ordered, as well as, “You’re a grown man,” and “I know you are a man of character. Where is it?”

This is exactly what not to do if you’re a coach, manager, employer, teacher, or administrator and you know what Turner knew. He should lose his job for that failure. That’s the way to ensure that the lessons of this sobering, necessary investigation hit home.

Emily Bazelon was a Slate senior editor from 2005 to 2014. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.

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