The turmoil swirling around the NFL’s Miami Dolphins this week after one teammate reportedly drove another to his breaking point with repeated harassment and threats offers many teachable moments. If nothing else, the incident should help phase out some archaic, deranged notions about what constitutes “toughness.”
The Dolphins’ problem was rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding from the start about Jonathan Martin, a talented young offensive lineman the team drafted early in the 2012 draft after he earned All-America honors at Stanford University. Martin’s physical gifts were never in doubt, but as a mild-mannered intellectual from a family with nine Harvard graduates, there was always something “different” about Martin. He considered becoming the first fourth-generation African American to attend Harvard, but later told the Vallejo Times Herald “the allure of playing Division I football at Stanford, I just couldn’t do without.”
In the topsy-turvy world of self-appointed arbiters of manhood like Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin, Martin’s character traits were considered a drawback. Those of notorious NFL goon Richie Incognito, on the other hand, were viewed as the antidote to Martin’s perceived “softness.”
Before he joined the Dolphins in 2010, Incognito’s resume included expulsion from two schools (the universities of Nebraska and Oregon); suspensions for fighting teammates; an arrest on three assault charges; accusations of gouging, head-butting and spitting on opponents; and the dubious honor of being voted the NFL’s dirtiest player by his peers in 2009.
Philbin, in defiance of all logic, saw this as the track record of a man worth trusting with a position of leadership. The Dolphins’ front office even had Incognito appear in public service announcements, and according to multiple reports, Philbin assigned Incognito the twisted task of “toughening up” Martin. Thus enabled, Incognito predictably unleashed a torrent of harassment on Martin that included racial slurs and death threats.
When Martin’s agent called Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland to complain, Ireland reportedly told the agent Martin should simply “punch” Incognito. As disturbing as this may sound, it harmonizes with the chorus criticizing Martin — which even includes some Dolphins — suggesting the incident would have remained private if Martin were willing to “stand up for himself” with violence.
Let’s be clear: lashing out with violence does not constitute standing up for one’s self. No professional, in any line of work, should have to earn respect in the workplace through fighting. And with so many incidents of deadly school and workplace violence drawing headlines over the past two years, let’s consider the implications of suggesting that one can solve one’s problems with an eruption of anger.