Ky. Voices: NFL case shows how hazing and devolve into bullying

November 14, 2013 

  • About the authors: Teresa A. Daniel is dean and professor in Human Resource Leadership Programs and Gary S. Metcalf is a faculty member in the graduate school at Sullivan University.

At 6 foot 5 inches tall and weighing in at 312 pounds, Jonathan Martin, an offensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins, is an unlikely candidate to be targeted by a bully. But bullied he was, and here's why.

During college and into his professional career, Richie Incognito has had a reputation as a rough player who is willing to do anything to win, even if he has to play dirty. He has been suspended by the Miami Dolphins while the team and the league investigate allegations that he sent profane and racist voice mail and text messages to Martin, and even threatened to kill him.

Allegations have also surfaced that Martin was subjected to a physical attack. If these reports about Incognito's behavior are proven true, not only is he a suspended lineman, he is also a bully.

Other players were apparently involved as well. The latest episode reportedly occurred in the team cafeteria when several teammates all left the table as Martin sat down. Apparently, this humiliation was the last straw — the one that broke this lineman's back and caused him to leave the team, at least temporarily.

This situation may have been created by a lack of veteran player leadership, too much pressure to perform or too little guidance to players about fair hazing boundaries inadvertently resulting in a case of unintended bullying. Equally possible, though, is that the situation was entirely predictable if reports are accurate that the Miami Dolphins coaches specifically directed Incognito to "toughen Martin up."

Like many organizations, the NFL has a long-standing culture of hazing rookies. At its essence, hazing involves a desire to bring newcomers into the group by requiring them to pass tests to show their loyalty and worthiness to belong — or in some cases, to see whether they can simply survive it. The new recruit is expected to follow orders without question. Though hazing is most often associated with college fraternities, it is also firmly entrenched in the military and in sports teams at all levels.

Rookie NFL players are often required to carry equipment off the field for their teammates, made to sing and entertain more senior players on demand, pay for outrageously expensive dinners and trips, perform useless drills to the point of exhaustion, and forced to endure deliberately bad haircuts or even have their eyebrows shaved off.

Players and coaches defend the use of pranks as a rite of passage to build team spirit and strengthen character. But hazing can introduce an unhealthy dynamic of power and control into the locker room. With each act of hazing that was tacitly condoned by coaches and veteran players, a culture of disrespect has been created — one that can set the stage for increasingly harmful bullying.

Where bullying differs from hazing is in the intent of the perpetrator. As Dr. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute vividly (and accurately) describes it, bullying is "a form of psychological warfare ... a laser-focused, systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction." Bullies exploit their superior power and status in order to degrade or demean their target — and such actions are detrimental to their organizations. While hazing rituals are intended as harmless pranks to initiate new people into a group, bullying is just the opposite. The primary goal of a bully is to relentlessly drive people away from it.

Suggestions that Martin should "man up" and deal with these attacks are misguided; it is easy to blame the victim, but much harder to fix a dysfunctional culture. Nobody should have to endure this kind of relentless torment at work.

Surprisingly though, while as a society we may find bullying to be repugnant, it is not illegal. Most states have enacted anti-bullying laws for school-age children, but those same protections do not yet apply in the American workplace.

The hazing culture of the NFL needs to change. After investigating the matter, we can only hope that the league will put some protections in place for its rookie players and develop some clear conduct guidelines for its veterans. We can also hope that this unfortunate situation will create the impetus for corporations to step up and take action to protect their workers, too.

Despite the personal shame and humiliation involved with admitting he had been bullied, Martin did what no other NFL player has ever done. He walked away from a multi-million dollar contract and publicly said "enough is enough." Some have criticized him as being "weak," but the truth is that making his situation public and sparking a national debate about the problem of workplace abuse took real courage.


About the authors: Teresa A. Daniel is dean and professor in Human Resource Leadership Programs and Gary S. Metcalf is a faculty member in the graduate school at Sullivan University.

Teresa A. Daniel is dean and professor in Human Resource Leadership Programs at Sullivan University. Gary S. Metcalf is a faculty member in the Graduate School at Sullivan University.

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