The recently released Wells report of the harassment against Jonathan Martin puts to rest many of the questions about the culture of the Miami Dolphins' locker room and Richie Incognito's relationship with Martin. Yet new questions emerge.
We now know that Incognito and two other teammates bullied Martin over a long period of time, and that Incognito's bullying adversely affected Martin's mental health. Incognito's bullying was complicated by the fact that Martin acted at times in ways that led Incognito to believe that they were friends. Moreover, Martin never confronted Incognito about the bullying. Nor did he ever complain about his harassment to the Dolphin's management. Although it may appear as though Martin was complicit in his own victimization, we learn that Martin's inaction was due to feelings of helplessness brought on by the bullying and to a team culture that demanded conformity, acquiescence and silence. The report does not explain how the Dolphins' culture became as toxic as it was or how the Dolphins' management remained oblivious to the hostile and abusive workplace environment that Incognito and others explicitly maintained.
Ironically, in 2013 before Martin went public, the Dolphins' management instituted a workplace conduct policy, which defined all of the offensive behavior that Incognito engaged in as harassment. Incognito and his teammates signed a form saying that they understood the policy and would uphold it. Although the report concludes the obvious -- that the conduct policy "may not have been fully appreciated" -- the report does not explain why the players did not grasp its implications for their own behavior or why the Dolphins' management was unaware of reprehensible behavior going on under their own noses. The report excuses management by noting, "We are unaware of any analogous situation in which anti-harassment policies have been applied to police how NFL teammates communicate and interact with each other." The word "police" may be an unfortunate one. Should management be expected to bear full responsibility for monitoring a team's culture and enforcing anti-harassment rules? What about the players themselves? What responsibility do players have for building a team culture based on principles of respect? According to the Wells report, the Dolphins' team had a "Judas Code" against "snitching," which players enforced through fines and at least one assistant coach upheld. In Martin's case and in cases of bullying more generally, peer norms against "snitching" make it extremely difficult for those in authority to "police" the peer culture and enforce anti-harassment policies.
The Wells report offered a tepid recommendation to the Dolphins' front office and to the NFL management more generally, suggesting that they provide "detailed examples of the types of joking or taunting that amount to unacceptable behavior" and "formal training concerning the kind of trash talking and other behavior that could amount to harassment." This recommendation implies that the problems of bullying and harassment are rooted in a lack of information. Why don't NFL players, all of whom are adults and most of whom are college-educated, know what constitutes bullying and harassment? The problem is not that the players are ignorant about what is right and wrong but that they have grown up in an individualistic culture that blames the victim and excuses the bystanders from taking moral responsibility. We have known how to prevent bullying and harassment for a long time now. We have yet to put in place serious policies that we know will be effective.
If the NFL is serious about preventing harassment in their locker rooms, they can get behind research-based programs in schools and in youth sports that teach students and student athletes how to become moral leaders in their classrooms in locker rooms.