Now that the NFL knows the scope of the racially charged Miami Dolphins bullying scandal, the league has been left to grapple with what its next steps should be.
A report released Friday on the Miami case concluded with a one-paragraph call to action:
“As all must surely recognize, the NFL is not an ordinary workplace. Professional football is a rough, contact sport played by men of exceptional size, speed, strength and athleticism. But even the largest, strongest and fleetest person may be driven to despair by bullying, taunting and constant insults. We encourage the creation of new workplace conduct rules and guidelines that will help ensure that players respect each other as professionals and people.”
League executives agree steps need to be taken, and have vowed to take action. But it may be difficult to regulate locker room behavior by determining when something a player considers to be harmless locker room nonsense crosses the line. Players are part of a team, but they are also individuals with different levels of sensitivity.
And as the report’s call to action points out, the NFL is not an ordinary workplace – and locker rooms are sanctuaries within those workplaces where even without the kinds of vicious taunts and racist insults cited in the report, behavior that would not be accepted in society is tolerated, and even condoned or encouraged.
Still, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross wants his organization to lead the way to change the culture.
“I have made it clear to everyone within our organization that this situation must never happen again,” Ross said in a statement released through the team after the report was released. “We are committed to address this issue forcefully and to take a leadership role in establishing a standard that will be a benchmark in all of sports.”
Before the Super Bowl, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had said he’d be out in front on the issue of hazing.
“Our No. 1 priority has to make sure that we have a workplace environment that’s professional, recognizing that we have some unique circumstances. But we have to make sure that our players, (and) other employees, have that kind of professional workplace environment,” Goodell said then.
After the report was released, the NFL did not mention any possible punishment stemming from the case in a statement emailed by a league spokesman.
The NFL Players Association said it will review the findings closely, confer with players and all relevant parties involved.
The report by lawyer Ted Wells said “the behavior that occurred here was harmful to the players, the team and the league,” but he noted the investigators weren’t asked to recommend discipline or determine legal liability for the bullying.
Wells concluded that offensive linemen John Jerry and Mike Pouncey joined Richie Incognito in harassing Jonathan Martin, who left the team in October, and position coach Jim Turner participated in the taunting of a second player. That player is Andrew McDonald, now with the Carolina Panthers.
The report found no evidence that the Dolphins front office or head coach Joe Philbin were aware of the conduct Martin found abusive.
“There are lines – even in a football locker room – that should not be crossed, as they were here,” the report said. “We leave the determination of precisely where to draw those lines to those who spend their lives playing, coaching and managing the game of professional football.”
Players would like to police themselves. It is, after all, their locker room.
Teams want a big say in setting those parameters. Like any other employer, they are responsible for maintaining a safe and respectful work environment that adheres to both the league’s policies and federal law.
The league is taking a hard look at the report, which details homophobic invective directed at McDonald.
That element in particular is a hot button issue in light of SEC co-defensive player of the year Michael Sam’s recent revelation that he’s homosexual, putting him in line to become the league’s first openly gay player.
Being at the center of this scandal puts the Dolphins at the forefront of any bolstering of policies protecting players from bullying.
The report said that in 2013, Dolphins players acknowledged receiving and understanding the personal conduct code and the workplace harassment and discrimination policies, both taken from the NFL handbook.
The latter policy states that “harassment can include, but is not limited to: unwelcome contact; jokes, comments and antics; generalizations and put-downs; pornographic or suggestive literature and language. In addition, harassment and discrimination are not limited to the workplace: they example (sic), through calls, texts or emails, on a plane or team bus; at a team event; or at the team hotel.”
The policy encourages reporting discrimination or harassment to the players’ union, a coach, human resources or NFL security.
The report touches on a code against snitching that exists in NFL locker rooms, however, and Martin never did report the abuse before walking away from the team when he’d had enough.
The Dolphins have already pledged to improve the team’s workplace conduct policies, which Wells called commendable. The team has formed an independent advisory group that includes Don Shula and Tony Dungy, along with several prominent retired players, to review the organization’s conduct policies and suggest improvements.
“We must work together towards a culture of civility and mutual respect for one another,” the Dolphins owner said.
“We encourage these efforts,” the report said. “The behavior that occurred here was harmful to the players, the team and the league. It was inconsistent with a civilized workplace – even in a professional football league and even among tough football players whose very profession is defined by physical and mental domination of players across the line of scrimmage.”
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