Why Does It Take a Richie Incognito for Us to Start Talking About Bullying?

In the wake of the Richie Incognito suspension, a big question that we need to ask is...why? With bullying so rampant in society, why has this story captivated the public imagination? And why did the Dolphins decide to suspend him that Sunday afternoon after initially defending him in a statement released just that morning?

The first question is easy. Bullying is linked in the public imagination to juvenile, perhaps inconsequential schoolyard behavior that "strong" adults should be able to tolerate, especially when they are large, famous professional football players. No one has cared much about workplace bullying among adults, and this has been a mistake. Until now. In the NFL.
The harm that workplace bullying does to organizations' morale, productivity, and efficiency is well-documented. It erodes employees' feelings of wellbeing and dignity in the workplace. Each day in this country, untold numbers of people falter and/or leave their employment because of corrosive workplace bullying. But until a famous football player took a stand and walked away from fame and success, no headlines screamed to us about this phenomenon.

As to the second question, Incognito's alleged bullying behavior, which reportedly dates back as least as early as his days as a college football player over a decade ago, looks to have been tolerated right up until the Dolphins' same-day turnaround. This turnaround ended with the Dolphins declaring their commitment to "create a safe and professional workplace for all players," and Incognito was suspended for "conduct detrimental to the team." What changed during the course of Sunday? It appears that once the racist and violent content of the harassing messages and statements were made known, minds began to change. Prior to that, media outlets have reported, Incognito may have even been told by coaches to "toughen up" his victim. While the racism displayed is repugnant and invidious, it should not have been the straw that broke the camel's back.

Indeed, it is society's and the law's tolerance of bullying that permits bullies to create cultures of hostility and to escalate their behavior over time. In fact, studies show that women and minorities report being bullied at higher rates than do other employees. Even the so-called "equal opportunity" bully levies abuse that may be received differently and more detrimentally by women and minorities, who have been historically excluded from and underrepresented in the American workplace. When bullying takes on a gendered or racist overtone, the impact that it can have on these groups is virtually incalculable. And by the time it takes on such a tone, it may have already, unchecked, caused untold harm to these groups.

We now need to pay attention to the issue of workplace bullying before this story disappears from our radar. We are certain to hear more about and to become more aware of bullying as time goes by. The entrance of women into professional arenas that have been held traditionally by men will continue to cause some of that which has traditionally been relegated to the realm of "male horseplay," to be recognized as abuse. Vast Improvements in technology enable individuals to capture and broadcast some incidents of things like schoolyard brawls and police misconduct that used to go undocumented and virtually unnoticed. Finally, social attitudes have changed in recent years, removing some of the stigma from reporting having been bullied.
Yet, even as these factors lead toward increased transparency and toward societal interest when, for example, an NFL team takes a stand, countless factors inhibit the anti-workplace bullying movement from taking hold and gaining traction. The sometimes frat-like, dog-eat-dog culture of Wall Street persists in making complaints about or even discussion of bullying shameful in many instances. And despite the drafting and promulgation of the Healthy Workplace Bill (anti-workplace bullying legislation) by The Healthy Workplace Campaign and its introduction in twenty-five states since 2003, no jurisdiction has enacted it. The standard for actionable behavior in the Bill is extremely high, allowing, as the Bill's webpage describes, "action only when mistreatment is so severe that it impairs a worker's health," and "mak[ing] the perpetrator more than a harmless, laughable jerk," but, rather, a "walking occupational health hazard[]."

While individual stories, especially when they are about famous people, capture the public imagination, facilitate discussion, and compel sentiment, it is important to recall the prevalence of workplace abuse and bullying across states, income levels, and types of workplaces. We need to translate our interest in the Dolphins' locker room into action in the boardrooms and break rooms of America.