Late last week, the NFL commissioned investigation into Richie Incognito and the Miami Dolphins treatment of, and response toward, Jonathan Martin was finally released. The 144 page “Wells Report,” as it’s being called, not only confirms Martin’s allegations, it also reveals that the harassment went even deeper and involved more people than was originally reported. According the report: “…three starters on the Dolphins offensive line, Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey, engaged in a pattern of harassment directed at not only Martin, but also another young Dolphins offensive lineman… and a member of the training staff…” Much has been written about the report since it was released, but I found most of what’s been written to be focused only on the more sensational, easier to grasp findings (which is not surprising). There are however a number of key findings that have been overlooked that I believe deserve some attention;
1. “Sounds like my kind of vacation– getting my ass beat & shit on by a bipolar psychopath.”
Those are the words Martin texted to Incognito and a number of his teammates on the offensive line while discussing a planned group trip to Las Vegas. At various points in the report Martin’s “friendship” with Incognito was referred to as bipolar, complicated, and abusive. In fact the report goes as far as quoting a psychologist with expertise in “matters relating to workplace dynamics” who notes that Martin’s attempt to maintain a relationship with Incognito was “a common coping mechanism exhibited by victims of abusive relationships…” This stood out to me because of the work that I do and the fact that I’ve worked closely with both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence.
Why am I bringing up domestic violence in a discussion about men who were professional teammates, not domestic partners? Because, even though this case is ostensibly about bullying and workplace harassment, the relationship between these two clearly ran deeper. Incognito’s reach into Martin’s life extended far beyond any Dolphins/NFL facility (aka the workplace) and the human tendency to categorize things can hinder our ability to understand what’s going on here. It’s important to realize that the tools and tactics of abusive people are remarkably similar no matter the nature of the relationship they’re being used in. I’m happy that the writers of the Wells report chose to use language like “abusive person” and “abusive relationships” because they describe exactly what was going on. Reading the report’s findings makes it hard to ignore this reality. Take for example these quotes;
“Martin claimed that there was a “good Richie”—his friend—and also a “bad Richie”— his abuser.” (pg. 36)
“the interactions between Martin and Incognito could swerve, on a moment’s notice, from vulgar and aggressive to affectionate or even caring. And both of them recognized this.” (pg. 36)
At one point he [Incognito] pulled his shirt off & tried to beat my [Martin’s] ass yesterday . . . Then 5 min later it was like nothing even happened and we went to the strip club.” (pg. 37)
Ultimately, we conclude that the “bad Richie” did in fact verbally harass Martin, and the acts of kindness and friendship by the “good Richie” do not excuse the abusive conduct. (p6. 37)
This sort of “bipolar” behavior is common in abusive relationships and is one of the reasons victims have a hard time leaving an abusive partner… they want to believe that the “good version” of their partner is the real version and often blame themselves when the “bad version” shows up (generally because the abuser also makes the victim believe it was their fault). Again, we’re not talking about a dating relationship here, but the tactics are very similar. Martin clearly felt trapped and controlled in his relationship with Incognito and with Incognito clearly running things in Martin’s slice of the Dolphins organization, he had no choice but to deal with Incognito’s BS on a daily basis. Whether this was in fact true or not, Martin felt his NFL fate was determined as much by Incognito as by any coach (if not more). This is another key tool of an abuser; controlling the perceptions/reality of the victim. No where is this more clearly exemplified than in the case of the $10,000 fine (the circumstances of which were described on page 39 – emphasis mine):
“…Incognito and other linemen told Martin that he had been assessed a $10,000 fine for not attending a group trip to Las Vegas in January 2013. Martin repeatedly was told that he was required to pay this fine, and he eventually did, by check. Incognito and others said during their interviews that they were obviously joking when they told Martin he had to pay this amount and claimed they never thought Martin would actually pay the $10,000, which was by far the highest fine paid. Martin reported that he paid the money because he did not believe his teammates were kidding with him and that he felt coerced into paying. In contrast, [John] Jerry, who also did not attend the Las Vegas trip, told us that when some of the linemen tried to fine him $10,000 for refusing to join the trip, he responded, “fuck no,” and never paid, recognizing that the demand was not serious and that there were no consequences to ignoring it.”
For untrained, unaware people on the outside looking in, why someone would attempt to befriend (or stay in a relationship with) someone who acts in these controlling, abusive ways is often one of the most confusing and miss-understood aspects of these relationships. There are a number of complex psychological and/or emotional reasons why this happens, and certainly each case is unique, but fear and safety are often primary motivations. When someone feels trapped in a relationship, there’s a hope that by getting closer to the perpetrator, a victim can stop or limit the abuse and have some control over what’s happening, or at the very least gain the ability to anticipate when it’s coming.
I could go on about this aspect of the report, as there’s so much to discuss… but in the interest of brevity, lets move on to the other key findings that stood out to me.
2. “Come get some pussy…”
If these incidents, which the report “decline[s] to make any findings about” happened as alleged, then it should be made clear that these are sexual assaults;
“…Incognito and others acknowledged that Player A was routinely touched by Incognito, [John Jerry, another offensive lineman] and [Mike Pouncey, also an offensive lineman] in a mockingly suggestive manner, including on his rear end, while being taunted about his supposed homosexuality.” (pg. 19)
“Martin said that on one particularly disturbing occasion, Pouncey physically restrained Player A, and, in full view of other players, jokingly told Jerry to “come get some pussy,” and that Jerry responded by touching Player A’s buttocks in a way that simulated anal penetration.” (pg. 19)
I’m disappointed that the report never calls these examples what they are, so I’ll say it again: Sexual Assault. Also, while we can’t make assumptions based on the behavior of one team, this is the sort of violently homophobic behavior that makes people fear for the safety of Michael Sam, who very well may become the NFL’s first openly gay player.
3. “No one really messed with Incognito…”
Finally, the concept of leadership is central to this whole situation. Many people hear the word leadership and think only about titles, rank, etc., which in this context means Miami Dolphins executives and coaches. Clearly some people in these official leadership positions engaged in reprehensible behavior by not only ignoring their responsibility to enforce clearly outlined workplace conduct policies, but also by participating in the harassment. But here’s the thing… according to the report, the true leader of the offense wasn’t the head or assistant coaches, but Richie Incognito himself. As stated on page 33 of the report; “Incognito was a leader on the offensive line and the entire offense. To a great extent, Incognito dictated the culture. (…we doubt that matters would have gotten so out of hand had Incognito not set a tone on the offensive line that made extremely vulgar taunting a typical form of communication.).”
While it’s certainly normal and expected for players on a team to form their own culture and lead themselves in many ways, this comment showed just how dysfunctional the leadership situation was for the Dolphins’ offense (emphasis mine): “According to one witness, no one really messed with Incognito—especially as a rookie. Even the coaches kind of took little comments from him.” (page 34). I fully recognize that in the NFL it’s not unusual for a player to have more status and power than a coach (or coaches), which can lead to some awkward dynamics, but this right here is exhibit #1 on what happened down in Miami. When parts of your team’s culture is determined by a abusive person with a history of violence, then it’s not surprising that these sorts of things happen.
The report concludes by encouraging “the creation of new workplace conduct rules and guidelines that will help ensure that players respect each other as professionals and people.” Not the strongest ending, but perhaps the report was only concerned with reporting findings and not making recommendations. Either way, I’ll go a step further and say that new policies aren’t enough, if coaches and team staff don’t uphold the workplace conduct policies that are already in place. The Dolphins need to fire the coaches who didn’t do their jobs and cut Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey. Then the NFL needs to levy heavy fines against the coaches and offenders and start getting serious about player behavior in and out of the locker room. If not, they better expect these sorts of cases to keep making the news.