There’s a locker room full of facts yet to surface surrounding Jonathan Martin’s departure from the Miami Dolphins. The second-year lineman claims to have been bullied, threatened, and harassed by Richie Incognito, a veteran teammate who played next to him on the offensive line. Martin is 320 pounds, a powerful man in a sport requiring mental grit and fierce physical demands. The publicly stated reasons for his exit are unusual in a sport where “suck it up” toughness is as much a part of the game as wearing shoulder pads.
Incognito admits he used the “n-word,” a self-described “act of love” towards Martin, an African-American coworker he had known and worked with less than two years. He and some other players argue he was trying to help his friend and acted in line with a unique locker room context that many just don’t understand.
That’s true. Incognito’s language and conduct are way out of bounds for any other workplace environment. When such behavior surfaces in other forms of entertainment, it can quickly smash careers. Mel Gibson and Michael Richards come to mind here.
Shocking as it is, this reminds me of behavioral patterns I’ve seen among top-ranked medical professionals, educators, and others. You might wonder what players in the NFL, surgeons masked in the OR, professors in the halls of academia have in common. The answer is a lot. They all work in highly-specialized fields, which require grueling years of preparation and fierce competition to master. Many vie to reach the top roles in their professions that are marked by status, respect and, in their circles and often beyond, fame.
In each profession, private roles and rituals for performance have evolved over time, and newcomers in some such groups must learn to master them or risk being shunned, ostracized, or dismissed. Stars on the field, in the OR, and in the classroom often see themselves as invulnerable and are treated that way by other colleagues and the organizations that employ them.
In medicine, there are prominent surgeons who yell outrageous and demeaning insults or otherwise abuse members of their team including: nurses, technologists, residents, and anesthesiologists. Those around them learn to tolerate their outbursts because their reputations or lucrative practices have made them untouchable.
In the university world, some professors set their own standards. They appear to believe that tenure and their own version of “academic freedom” give them the right to say and do what they want. Normal rules of professionalism don’t reach their perch in the ivory tower. Earlier this fall, one internationally known philosophy professor at the University of Miami resigned his tenured position following allegations of improper sexual conduct presented by one of his students. Like Martin, she had written evidence supporting her claim. The professor unsuccessfully contended that his words were taken out of context, just as has his fellow Floridian, Incognito, now claims.
We’ve seen similar cases of outrageous conduct in corporations, charities, businesses, law firms, and the military. Stories surface when someone has had enough. They quit their jobs, or file an internal complaint or lawsuit. Or, somehow the press finds out and writes an exposé. The acts “of love,” though different than those in Incognito’s situation, aren’t justified in the outside world either, no matter how “normal” they seemed to some on the inside. Instead, they lead to censure, demotion, discharge, organizational apologies, new standards, and large settlements.
My guess is the lesson for the Dolphins will be that the locker room is ultimately a business workplace. Threats and gross racial or similar insults don’t belong there. They create risk and dissension while harming performance. They’re flagrant violations, another version of unnecessary roughness. That’s the cultural context that needs to be understood in the NFL. In this respect, it’s not in a league of its own, but just like every other workplace.