School Climate & Safety

Adolescent Woes at Heart of Miami Dolphins Scandal

By Ross Brenneman — February 26, 2014 3 min read
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The Miami Dolphins, you might have heard, had some problems with bullying and hazing this past year. But the NFL team’s troubles are only a microcosm of a global phenomenon that is just as likely to happen at a high school as it is in a professional sports franchise, and has its roots in teenage harassment.

If you’re not into sports, or news, or being sociable with people who like either of those, here’s a recap: In October 2013, rookie Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin angrily exited the team’s lunchroom after a prank done against him, and shortly thereafter announced his resignation from the team.

In the ensuing weeks, media investigation revealed a troubling history of abuse of Martin, and also of the team’s other rookies, especially by fellow lineman Richie Incognito. According to messages provided by Martin, Incognito frequently threatened Martin’s family and repeatedly used racial slurs.

But a scathing 144-page report published this month by the National Football League, and a subsequent story by The New York Times, more fully describe what exactly happened in the Miami Dolphins locker room and why.

So much has already been unpacked about this series of events. Various outlets have called it a bullying problem, a hazing problem, an indictment of football, an indictment of men, and a race problem.

The NFL report, prepared by attorney Ted Wells, suggests an answer closer to “all of the above problems,” but concentrates mostly on outright bullying, in part by Incognito, but also by fellow offensive linemen John Jerry and Mike Pouncey. Together, the three pressed on some raw feelings left stewing in Martin since adolescence, the report says, when he repeatedly faced bullying in middle and high school. He says he contemplated suicide multiple times. The report excoriates the other team members for taking advantage of Martin’s emotional weaknesses:

“Martin’s vulnerabilities do not excuse the harassment that was directed at him. That the same taunts that might have bounced off a different person is beside the point. Bullies often pick vulnerable victims, but this makes their behavior more, not less, objectionable.”

In a November 2013 interview with Fox Sports, Incognito pinned his actions on NFL culture, a rough-and-tumble mentality that prizes toughness. Indeed, some reports allege that his coaches may have even encouraged that he “toughen up” Martin. It’s like “A Few Good Men,” except about people who get paid handsomely to move a weird-shaped ball across some grass every Sunday.

A Climate of Cruelty

The story by the Times, published Wednesday, suggests Incognito’s claims, while not excuses for his behavior, are rooted in truth. Pouncey stood out in his Lakeland High School, Fla., football program, playing for the highly competitive and distinguished Dreadnaughts. Jerry rose from the trailer parks of Batesville, Miss., as a South Panola Tiger. As an escape, football consumed each of them, the story says, even more so when they joined the rosters at University of Florida and Ole Miss, respectively, where “banter and teasing abounded.”

For all the students that have ever had to do something stupid to join a club, or endure insult to fit in, this is common ground. In fact, research coincidentally released during the height of the scandal shows that societies everywhere put value in hazing.

In an anthropological study by the University of California, Santa Barbara, researcher Aldo Cimino found hazing to be a global tradition, uninhibited by location or history. Humans, throughout time and space, are awful jerks haze.

What’s more, though, is that Cimino’s study asked certain people to indicate circumstances under which they would haze, and found that the more rewards a group offers, the likelier participants would be to haze. In other words, you can’t just walk into a tribe and enjoy its considerable resources—you have to demonstrate commitment.

History like Martin’s suggests that this is the same experience many middle and high schoolers will endure and force upon others, leaving deep enough scars that a man might walk away from a career at the height of his profession. When child advocates point to the importance of school climate, they can draw on the Miami Dolphins as a warning, as a measure of the psychological impact left on students by their peers.

Here is the full NFL report.

Image: Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito, left, and tackle Jonathan Martin look over plays during the second half of an NFL preseason football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Aug. 24, in Miami Gardens, Fla. —Wilfredo Lee/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.