Column / David Smith: The baggage of bullying in the NFL

Column / David Smith: The baggage of bullying in the NFL


The reaction regarding the bullying story involving two Miami Dolphin professional football players, Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, has proved interesting.

One would think that most people would take the side of the alleged victim and support him. That’s not been the case.

I heard a colleague mention a poll of the players the other day. When asked which player they wanted back, teammates chose the alleged bully, Incognito. At the team’s last game, the fans were chanting Incognito’s name and holding up signs that read “Free Incognito.”

It seems that in professional sports, talent and winning trump everything, and I believe that filters down to college and high school sports. Some athletes have been known to get a pass on offenses that would land a non-jock in hot water. And if you don’t think it’s happened, think again.

It was earlier this year that the first-degree murder charges against former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez put a spotlight on NFL players. In a game known for its stats, it didn’t take long for sports writers and others to come up with a list of NFL players’ arrests.

Since the Super Bowl in early February, 31 NFL players have been arrested, according to a database compiled by the U-T San Diego.

We have attempted murder charges against former Cleveland Browns rookie Ausar Walcott, after he allegedly punched a man outside a New Jersey club, and gun charges against Indianapolis Colts safety Joe Lefeged, who was arrested after he fled police during a traffic stop.

There are other studies that suggest the rate of arrests for the players mirrors the rates found in our society. Maybe so.

Anyone laboring under the assumption that a huge paycheck and great job could keep someone on the straight and narrow will be sadly let down. They are not all heroes.

For most of us, a huge paycheck would be enough to avoid wrongdoing, but then again, most of us do that with the paychecks we now draw. Getting arrested doesn’t seem like an option because who wants the shame of being paraded into court or showing up on the front page in a not-so-feel-good story.

Those kinds of deterrents don’t seem to apply to all professional athletes. Hey, perhaps it’s the money, fame and ever-grinding pressure of trying to stay on top that drives them astray. I don’t know, because I have never walked a mile in their shoes. But there does seem to be a bit of entitlement that shines through, and that’s something I can’t tolerate.

I heard the alleged phone message that Incognito left for Martin. It was horrible. It was only right that he was suspended pending an investigation.

Martin left the team amid accusations of workplace harassment. I really wish he hadn’t left. I wished he had stayed and fought, but given the mood of the team perhaps he didn’t have a choice. It’s not hard to believe that a guy in his position would fear for his own safety.

A news release came in the other day from University of Rhode Island College of Business Administration Professor Anthony R. Wheeler. It read that Wheeler has researched bullying in the workplace and believes the Miami Dolphins organization should be held accountable for creating an environment in which bullies have thrived.

“Workplace bullies thrive in hands-off, laissez-faire environments; environments such as NFL locker rooms, which are known to be players’, not coaches’, sanctuaries,” said Wheeler, the Spachman professor of Human Resource Management. “People become bullies not by some personality defect but by feeling that their workplace resources are threatened. In the hyper-competitive NFL, every player works under the constant threat of resource loss, whether it’s losing a starting job, a paycheck, or their health through an injury. This is where organizational leadership and culture matter.”

Wheeler added that research has shown that if an organization tacitly approves of aggressive and bullying behaviors, that organization will get exactly those behaviors.

“Employees will do what they are rewarded for doing, and those rewards come in the form of more than just money,” Wheeler said. “Somewhere in the Dolphins organization, and probably in many NFL organizations, the very leaders who now condemn Richie Incognito’s reported behaviors likely knew of these behaviors and did nothing about them until Jonathan Martin left the team.”

Should Incognito lose his job? The NFL might make him a sacrificial lamb, but everyone deserves a shot at redemption, including bullies.

They are both great players and Martin, at the very least, deserves to resume his career. With his talent, Martin should find another job in the NFL.

After all, in professional sports it doesn’t seem like anyone cares about the baggage you carry — as long as you can help post a win.

David Smith is the editor of The Sun’s weekly publications. This is his personal opinion. He can be reached at

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