Friday, November 8, 2013

Bullies on the Football Field—The Miami Dolphins Get a Crash Course on the Dangers of Workplace Aggression

I’ve been busy with clients and conferences and other work stuff the past few days, but yesterday, during my flight home from the 9th Annual Staffing Symposium hosted by the Staffing Management Association of Seattle (SMA Seattle) I decided to catch up on the Miami Dolphin’s bullying problem.  


I wish I could be surprised every now and again about how this works, but apparently that’s not going to happen just yet.

A nice man in the seat next to me (who turned out to be John Barr from NHL to Seattle) also was reading about the saga, and he introduced me to sports writer Dave Zirin, who’s published a few articles about the mess. While reading Zirin’s take, I was struck by this depressing fact: I don’t know shit about sports, and yet I’m thoroughly familiar with linebacker Jonathan Martin’s story.

Whether the workplace in question is your typical corporate office, a television studio, or a football field, the dynamics of workplace bullying hold true. You have your bully, your target, a host of apathetic and/or powerless (though perhaps sympathetic) witnesses, and a boatload of clueless supporters, including (unfortunately) someone (or several someones) at the top of the food chain looking down while declaring everything good.

The supporters will brand the target “weak” and the bully a slightly rough-around-the edges “good ole boy/girl” who’s getting a bad rap because some “sissy” can’t just man up/woman up.

In "The Miami Dolphins Showcase Bully Solidarity," Zirin writes: “Wide receiver Brian Hartline is ‘outraged’ at Martin for coming forward. Tackle Tyson Clabo said that Martin 'needs to stand up and be a man,' and added ‘I don’t know why he’s doing this.’”

Egads. (I just recently rediscovered that word from my friend Wanda. It’s a good word; I may use it more often.)

Why can’t we get this straight?

With everything that’s been written about workplace bullying, more people should have a better understanding of this phenomenon by now. But it seems we’re so in love with the idea of aggression and so enthralled with the idea of power that we’ll just accept the stupid premise that only punks get abused—and they deserve it, too, because it’s within the natural order of things that the strong survive and the weak perish.

In The NFL's Bully Problem, Dave Zirin says, “There is a stench of complicity throughout the Dolphins organization, with teammates as well as anonymous team officials reflexively defending Incognito at every turn.”

Zirin goes on to posit that the culture of the NFL promotes the ideal of a 'big, nasty bastard who affects a persona of being mean as hell and impervious to pain.'”

Again, I don’t know crap about sports, but I know about work and leadership. And I know something about the culture of certain non-NFL establishments that promote the ideal of the lazy, unmotivated worker who needs a big, nasty bastard of a boss to kick his ass so he’ll produce.

Some say Richie Incognito and Martin were “close friends,” and if so, these bullying reports are all the more disturbing, not to mention sad. According to Yahoo! Sports, Incognito left this message for Martin in April:

"Hey, wassup, you half n----- piece of s---. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] s--- in your f---ing mouth. [I'm going to] slap your f---ing mouth. [I'm going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. F--- you, you're still a rookie. I'll kill you."

This is harmless “hazing?” Well, woo hoo! I’m LMAO, this s---- is so funny!


Workplace bullying is not funny. It is not natural. It is not harmless. It shouldn’t be acceptable, and swift, appropriate disciplinary action in response to workplace bullying shouldn’t be controversial.

Despite former Seahawks and Lions defensive end Lawrence Jackson’s claim that “Incognito is way worse than anybody I ever played against” I’m not saying that Incognito is a demon from the pit of hell. However, right is right.

But by all reports Incognito has earned his suspension. It’s ridiculous and inhuman to blame Martin, who is the unfortunate recipient of Incognito’s bad, bad behavior, but certainly not the cause of it.

It’s true, I’m biased. I don’t like practical jokes, you couldn’t pay me to join a sorority, and I think any form of “hazing” as a means of team building is just plain dumb.

But bias or no bias, I know that workplace bullying is real, and calling it something else only diminishes our understanding of its dangers.

That said, I’m grateful the story has come to light. A 2007 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute reported that in 77% of cases, targets “stop” the bully by losing their jobs.

And that’s just wrong.

So maybe Martin’s troubles will help someone else, including other athletes who may be, at this very moment, experiencing something similar.


  1. I'm sure the Dolphin organization like others have a harassment policy that governs the behavior of all personnel. The policy is apparently not consistently enforce at all levels of the organization. I would consider that unfair employee/labor practices. What is the player's union position on this issue? After all it is a labor relations issue and the players are represented by a bargaining agreement.

    1. Hi Kenneth, that's a good question you raise--about the union's part in this. I'd like to know the answer.

      However, even if the players weren't covered by a union, they should have some protection against this type of treatment. Being an athlete may be a lucrative and glamorous job, it's still a job, and the employer should have responsibilities.