Ted Wells’ independent investigation of the Miami Dolphins and the culture of their offensive line is the opposite of a whitewash. The investigators’ 140-plus page report on the events leading up to Jonathan Martin’s departure from the team is judicious, persuasive, and a public service. Carefully sifting through the evidence, it concludes that Richie Incognito and two teammates who acted as his henchmen humiliated and harassed Martin, another unnamed teammate, and an assistant trainer for months in ways that no employee should have to endure. This report should be required reading in management courses and for anyone who wonders how ugly, demeaning, and corrosive treatment can lie beneath a façade of “all in good fun” workplace “teasing.”
The report should also be a watershed moment for the Dolphins and the NFL. Its conclusions will only have real power if it leads to real consequences. Given his record of past infractions, Incognito should not play in the NFL. Not next year, and probably not ever. And the Dolphins should fire offensive line coach Jim Turner, who participated in the bullying.
I’ve often half-joked that to really understand an accusation of bullying, you need a police investigation, with all the tools for rigorously evaluating the credibility of everyone’s account. With more than 100 interviews of Dolphins players, coaches, and managers, as well as thousands of text messages, that’s what this report is. For this we should credit not just the professionalism of the investigative team, but the openness of Jonathan Martin. He gave his permission to air sensitive, private information about his struggles with depression and suicidal thinking. It’s a personal sacrifice that will no doubt expose him to hurt and criticism—and that allows for the kind of honest reckoning that can help other victims of bullying, both adults and kids.
Martin played football for Stanford University before joining the Dolphins two seasons ago. As every story about him mentions, he weighs more than 300 pounds. How do you bring a guy like this to his knees? If you’re a team leader like Richie Incognito, it’s easy. The genius of this report is how clear that becomes as you read.
“To a great extent, Incognito dictated the culture” of the Dolphins’ locker room and offensive line, Wells and the other three members of his team write. Incognito had two abettors, his fellow offensive linemen John Jerry and Mike Pouncey. The three of them shredded Martin’s sense of self-worth in all the ways that bullies have perfected. It’s textbook. They figured out how to get to Martin, and then they kept at it, from his first season to his second last fall.
Incognito and his cronies hurled an unending series of disgusting sexual insults at Martin’s sister and mother. (Former assistant offensive line coach Chris Mosley remembered this going on constantly for a period of two weeks. More about the amazing lapses by him and Turner later.) They tricked Martin into paying $10,000 for missing a group trip to Las Vegas. (Another player, similarly fined, said, “Fuck no,” never paid, and knew there would be no fallout.) They called Martin racist slurs—“nigger” and also “liberal mulatto bitch,” “stinky Pakistani,” “shine box,” and “darkness.” (Jerry is black and Pouncey is biracial, which was supposed to make all of this OK, but didn’t.) Incognito also called Martin “my bitch” or “the O-line’s bitch”—once, after he’d come to Martin’s defense in a fight on the field during a scrimmage. How better to send the message that Martin was in fact his bitch—a weak-willed “half-nigger piece of shit” who had no choice but to take all of this abuse.
Martin tried. He pretended the harassment didn’t bother him. He turned his back. He walked away. He laughed it off. Once in a while he told Incognito and his henchmen to fuck themselves. But he didn’t land a punch—football player or no, that’s not his way—or convince anyone that he was invulnerable. And he knew it. This reminded me so much of a seventh-grade boy I interviewed a couple of years ago in Lincoln, Neb., who continually struggled with letting other kids get to him. “All the teachers, they tell me to ignore it and walk away,” he said. “I’ve tried ignoring it. It’s just, they know me. So if I walk away and act like nothing happened, they’ll keep following and bullying because they know how I really feel.”
The most heart-breaking part of the Wells report is the series of messages Martin sent to his parents in April 2013, following his rookie year. He wrote to his mother:
I figured out a major source of my anxiety. I’m a push over, a people pleaser. I avoid confrontation whenever I can, I always want everyone to like me. I let people talk about me, say anything to my face, and I just take it, laugh it off, even when I know they are intentionally trying to disrespect me. I mostly blame the soft schools I went to, which fostered within me a feeling that I’m a huge pussy.
She tried to help, acknowledging that the NFL was different from the world he’d grown up in, as the child of two academics. (In the larger world, Martin has more social power than Incognito. In the Dolphins locker room, his upper-middle-class upbringing just made him seem awkward and different.) She also said professional help and “additional serotonin” might be a good idea. Martin wrote back: “A therapist & medication won’t help me gain the respect of my teammates. I really don’t know what to do Mom.”
To his father, who is black, Martin wrote of his self-loathing at failing to stop his teammates: “People call me a Nigger to my face. Happened 2 days ago. And I laughed it off. Because I am too nice of a person. They say terrible things about my sister. I don’t do anything.”
His dad sympathized, too, sharing his own experiences of being attacked with racial insults. But a week later, after feeling shamed by Incognito and Pouncey on a yacht trip, Martin wrote to his mother: “I’m never gonna change. I got punked again today. Like a little bitch. And I never do anything about it.”