|February 20, 2014|
Previously published on February 20, 2014
Last Friday, attorney Ted Wells of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP issued a 144-page report (commonly referred to as the Wells report) to the National Football League concerning the alleged harassment of Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin. On October 28, 2013, Martin abruptly walked off the team after a lunch room joke, which he says was the final straw after enduring nearly a year of harassment from his teammates. Martin checked himself into a hospital for mental health help.
Amidst bullying rumors, the NFL hired Wells to conduct an investigation and issue the report. During the investigation, the entire Dolphins’ team, coaching staff, and management was interviewed. The finished, very lengthy report acknowledged the vulgar locker room culture prevalent in professional sports today, and concluded this instance saw more than the usual locker room banter and horseplay. Indeed, the Wells report found, Martin was subjected to a pattern of harassment by teammates Richie Incognito, Mike Pouncey, and John Jerry in the form of racial insults and remarks and sexually explicit insults about his mother and sister. (It is worth noting that Martin is of African-American and Caucasian descent, Incognito is Caucasian, and Pouncey and Jerry are African-American.)
The report showed that Martin socialized often off the field with Incognito, the primary aggressor. However, Wells concluded that Martin’s close relationship with Incognito was consistent with the behavior of a victim of abuse.
The Dolphins’ organization did have a harassment policy in place. However, not only was the coaching staff ignorant of what occurred in the locker room, but it permitted the players to run their own “kangaroo court.” They even had a fine book whereby they were able to impose fines upon each other for conduct such as wearing ugly shoes and “Judas fines” for being a traitor or a snitch. For example, if a coach criticized a player for making an error during a game and that player pointed out that his teammate was actually to blame, his fellow teammate could assess a “Judas fine” against him. In addition, the day Martin walked out on the Dolphins, Incognito charged himself a fine for “breaking [Martin],” but awarded lineman Nate Garner, also subject to frequent bullying, a bonus for “not cracking first.” Thus, the locker room culture of bullying and harassment was not just accepted — it was encouraged.
In November, Incognito was suspended as a result of the publication of voicemails and text messages to Martin in which he used racial slurs. In December, the Dolphins’ staff made the decision to suspend him with pay through the remainder of the season. Incognito will be a free agent next month. Martin remained on the team’s non-football injury list with full pay through the end of the 2013 season. His contract with the Dolphins does not expire until 2015, and he has expressed his desire to return to football.
Most of the players and staff interviewed during the course of the investigation had a “boys will be boys” mentality and expressed that the lewd conduct, name calling, pranks, and fines in the locker room were all in good fun. Indeed, Dolphins’ players interviewed by the media throughout the 2013 season overwhelmingly showed their support for Incognito rather than Martin.
Nevertheless, the Wells report cautions the NFL that a locker room is a workplace like any other, albeit a unique one. The findings encourage the creation of new workplace policies and guidelines that curb this type of atmosphere and ensure that all players and staff are treated with decency and respect. Only time will tell if the league is listening.