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Richie Incognito (left) and Jonathan Martin
Associated Press/Photo by Lynne Sladky
Richie Incognito (left) and Jonathan Martin

NFL bullying and the organizational culture that fosters it

Sports

Bullying is a term we usually reserve for children and adolescents. Once people become adults it’s called either “abuse” or “harassment.” But no matter what the term used, those are the allegations surrounding two Miami Dolphins players: Jonathan Martin, a second-year offensive tackle who left the team last week after an incident in the team cafeteria involving another lineman, Richie Incognito. In the days that followed, allegations of sustained harassment (racial epithets, financial coercion, etc.) by Incognito were made. Martin is said to be suffering significant emotional distress. He is at his parents’ home in California while the National Football League Players Association and NFL authorities investigate the matter.

The Players Association has issued a statement saying they “expect the NFL and its clubs create a safe and professional workplace for all players.” This is the obvious and correct expectation in every workplace. If the claims of harassment are proven true, there is no excuse for such behavior and treatment of another person. But rethink that expectation as it pertains to the NFL. Is it correct? Hasn’t the league fostered an environment where such issues can flourish?

Football is violent; its players are expected to be violent. Every week players are asked to “play angry” and be animals on the field. Then they have one shower’s worth of time after the game to become civil and productive members of society again. For most this isn’t a problem; it’s competition and when it’s done it’s done. For some, though, it is a rage outlet and it splashes over into everyday life.

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Teams often value physical ability more highly than character. Nice guys finish last in the NFL, unless they can split a double-team or throw a ball 70 yards. Richie Incognito has had multiple run-ins both with the law and with previous coaches. He has a reputation as a dirty player. But he is a behemoth, strong as a mule, and more skilled at football than 99.9 percent of the population. So his character flaws are overlooked for the sake of winning.

A leadership vacuum exists in the NFL, too. Healthy organizations have strong leadership who guide and create a good culture. The NFL turns over general managers and coaches every two or three years. It’s the nature of a “win now” industry. But a by-product of that philosophy is that things like consistent expectations, accountability, relationships with employees, and infrastructures to support those in need are almost certainly lacking.

In any culture—corporate, church, ministry, sports, or even family—where expectations fluctuate, character is devalued, and leadership isn’t developed, more room exists for people to hurt one another. This lack of infrastructure allows for finger-pointing and blame. It puts the burden on each individual to defend himself since there isn’t the support he needs. The NFL would be wise to consider the import of organizational culture in instances like this. Are individuals culpable for their actions? Absolutely. But so is the organization that influenced them.

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