By Chris Ross – Thompson Rivers University 2L JD Student
Bullying has always been a part of growing up. From the time children are in kindergarten, there are bullies and there are victims. Bullying is something that we expect to fade away as we get older and supposedly mature into grown-ups. However, at least in the National Football League, locker room bullying appears to be a widespread issue that is getting national attention due to some unfortunate circumstances.
Three weeks ago, Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Richie Incognito was suspended by the team indefinitely while the NFL investigates a situation involving Incognito and his second year African-American teammate Jonathan Martin. At the end of October, Martin went AWOL and left the team following a joke played on him by his teammates in the team cafeteria and has yet to return the team. According to reports, the reason for Martin’s departure was bullying and hazing from teammates, allegedly lead by his “best friend” on the team, Richie Incognito.
The most damning piece of evidence against Incognito is the transcript of a voicemail he left on Martin’s phone. The voicemail said: “Hey, wassaup, you half n—– piece of s—. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] s— in your f—— mouth. [I’m going to] slap your f—— mouth. [I’m going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. F— you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”
Jonathan Martin has since hired high profile sports attorney David Cornwell to represent him going forward. Cornwell alleges that Martin has been subject to a “malicious physical attack,” his sister threatened, and “daily vulgar comments” from Miami teammates. Cornwell claims that the treatment his client was forced to endure was harassment that went far beyond the traditional locker room hazing.
The Incognito-Martin situation is very difficult to judge accurately because there are so many questions yet to be answered. While Incognito has handed over text message communications with Martin indicating that Martin was not holding Incognito responsible, it is possible he simply sent those out of fear of retribution from Incognito. There is so much that we do not know about the situation and until all the information from the NFL investigation comes out, it is probably best to withhold judgement on either player.
Right or wrong, hazing of varying magnitudes has always been a part of sports culture, whether it be at the high school, college or professional level. Nevertheless, the legal implications of this case could have a profound effect on the unique locker room culture of professional sports and the fine line that athletes walk between harmless hazing and hurtful bullying.
According to ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson, Florida law provides the basis for a civil lawsuit that would assess monetary damages against Incognito. Incognito’s use of the N-word and his threats “to kill” could qualify Martin for money damages for anyone who “has been intimated or threatened on the basis of race or color.” Florida law provides triple damages and would allow Martin to collect his legal fees from Incognito. Given Incognito’s expected earnings in the future and a possible end to Martin’s career, Munson asserts that Martin could collect as much as $15 million.
Furthermore, the fact that the Miami Dolphins organization may have known about this situation, and there are reports alleging they may have even encouraged it, could allow Martin to hold them liable as well. High profile attorney Gloria Allred has said that if the Dolphins knew of the racial or sexual harassment of Martin and failed to take action or even condoned it, they would be in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and potentially be liable for emotional damages to Martin resulting from discrimination.
While the facts of this eye-opening situation are still murky at best, there is no doubt that professional franchises around North America have taken notice. In the November 18 issue of Sports Illustrated, editor Jon Wertheim wrote that the story is “pitting the NFL’s macho old guard against the anti-bullying movement” and that we “might be surprised at who’s winning handily.”
The locker room culture, a culture that is said to be incomprehensible to an outsider, may be forced to drastically change as a result of the Incognito-Martin fallout. Although it will be interesting to see if Richie Incognito and/or the Miami Dolphins are held legally accountable for this incident in some manner, the amount of negative attention this story has received, in both the sports and legal world, should be a catalyst to transforming the way in which locker rooms across professional sports operate.