Football Players, Grow Up

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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After months of speculation about what went down between NFL players Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, we have a definitive answer: pure, unabashed, unadulterated bullying.

Independent investigator Ted Wells released his much-anticipated report Friday, concluding that Martin and two other members of the Miami Dolphins organization were subjected to "a pattern of harassment" that included homophobic taunts, racial slurs, misogynistic ridicule, sexually explicit threats directed at family members, and violent threats meant to intimidate -- all under the guise of everyday locker room banter. Although the report acknowledged that the context of football player conduct is quite different from that of a more traditional office environment, it stressed that "limits should exist," and the behavior and language Incognito and teammates John Jerry and Mike Pouncey hurled at Martin violated any reasonable measure of workplace propriety (and, I might add, human decency).

The sprawling report includes almost 150 pages of vulgar, appalling conduct, from taunting an Asian-American assistant trainer by wearing Japanese headbands and threatening retaliation on the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, to making lewd remarks and gestures directed at Martin's mother and sister, to keeping a "fine book" that levied monetary punishments for such infractions as having "stinky dreads." Some lower on the evolutionary spectrum will defend this behavior as part of the accepted frat-boy culture in a sports world full of boys masquerading as men, but as the report notes, Incognito clearly knew that what he was doing was a violation, if not just plain wrong, by his failed attempts to destroy the book once the investigation was announced.

Which brings us to two crucial components of the report, unprecedented in its scrutiny of workplace practices in sports: first, the assertion that football culture doesn't excuse this level of abuse, and second, that Martin's supposed friendship with Incognito did not, in fact, sanction his own harassment. In the past two weeks, after more than a thousand text messages between the two were leaked ahead of the report's release, sports media across the country were quick to condemn Martin for complaining about language he himself was using, and for appearing to participate in the very behavior he characterized as abuse. It looked as though Incognito was on the verge of vindication, with reporters and fans ready to shift their scrutiny to Martin. But as Wells notes, after he consulted with a psychologist who specializes in workplace conduct, Martin was simply acting out of survival instinct, a sort of locker room Stockholm syndrome in which it was easier to go along with the ridicule and befriend Incognito to try to soften the abuse than it was to challenge the status quo and be labeled as a snitch. It's an understandable strategy given what Wells details about the role of Dolphins officials in not just accepting but also furthering the hostile environment -- especially offensive line coach Jim Turner, who actively contributed to a long-running "joke" that a bullied player was gay and condoned the use of the term "Judas" to describe any level of perceived betrayal -- that most likely contributed to Martin's failure to report his abuse while a member of team.

This saga has implications beyond the world of sports, as the report demonstrates that in any context, the instinct to ignore or go along with abuse is natural. Male-dominated work environments such as sports and finance can foster a one-sided, meathead culture in the name of brotherly bonding and team building, with a potential for bullying. And consider the effect of this attitude toward women: During the 2012 season, at least 21 National Football League teams had at least one player with a domestic violence or assault charge, and a glance at recent arrests isn't particularly encouraging. On the same day Wells released his report, the Associated Press reported that former NFL safety Darren Sharper was arrested and accused of drugging two women with alcohol and Ambien and raping them. When a frat culture that encourages the reduction of women to sexual objects and the luring of "rapebait" extends beyond college to one's professional life -- and is further glorified by the fame and fortune of being an athlete -- we can't be surprised when a 38-year-old who's never been taught where the line should be drawn leaps right over it.

I'm all for male bonding and team building and allowing players to express their inner bro -- I wouldn't want to contribute to the apparent "wussification" of sports, as it were. But as Wells notes, a sensitive player with Jonathan Martin's level of talent should be able to find a home on a professional football team. Boys may be boys, but by the time they reach an NFL locker room, it's time for them to start acting like men.

(Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Follow her on Twitter at @kavithadavidson.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Kavitha A Davidson at

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