Widespread Retaliation Against NFL Player After Report of Workplace Harassment

With all of the celebrity and fanfare that surrounds professional football players it is, at times, hard to remember that they are employees just like the rest of us. Perhaps that explains the multitude of truly harsh and inappropriate reactions to the Richie Incognito controversy.  For anyone who hasn’t already heard the story, Miami Dolphins player Richie Incognito was recently indefinitely suspended after his former teammate Jonathan Martin, accused him of workplace harassment, including leaving voice messages and sending text mesages bullying him, calling him racially derogatory names, and threatening him.

Sadly, the reaction of many players, personnel and fans has been to attack and bad-mouth the alleged victim, rather than to take a stand against the accused.  In the last two weeks I have seen quotes from Dolphins personnel stating that Jonathan Martin is “weak” and a “coward” and statements from players suggesting that Martin should “man up” and confront Incognito personally rather than “[telling] like a kid.”  Some of the most disgusting criticism of Martin, however, comes from football fans and the general public.  A quick review of online comments to articles about the story reveal fans calling Martin “soft” and derogatory terms that are too vulgar to include here, accusing him of “playing the race card,” and stating that “the more [they] read about Incognito, the more [they] like him.”  See, for example http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/nfl/news/20131104/nfl-personnel-question-jonathan-martin-richie-incognito/index.html; and http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/9946248/richie-incognito-held-offensive-line-meetings-strip-club.

I have been reading as much as I can and really trying to figure out where this animosity toward a player who was brave enough to report workplace harassment and bullying comes from.  The best I can surmise is that we hear about big money contracts and read about the players’ off-field antics so regularly that, when it comes down to it, we forget that they too go to work every week, are paid to produce, and spend a great deal of time in their offices – the locker room.  These guys are employees and have to deal with workplace politics, policies, and laws just like everyone else.

Keeping that in mind, take a step back from the world of football and consider the allegations on their own.  Incognito has been accused of threatening a coworker, bullying him, and calling him racial slurs.  If one of our own coworkers (or even an employee at the local grocery store) engaged in that type of conduct, we would be up in arms.  The public backlash would fall upon the harasser, not the victim, and maybe even the employer if there were some allegation that it knew of the employee’s biases and turned a blind eye to the inappropriate conduct.  But exactly the opposite seems to be happening here.

I’m not sure what precisely it is about celebrity or football culture that makes this alleged conduct seem acceptable.  I acknowledge that football is inherently aggressive and that the culture of a locker room likely includes a good deal of rough and rowdy conduct.  Even the federal courts acknowledge that workplace harassment laws were not put in place to police merely “boorish” behavior and that certain workplaces which are known to be rougher around the edges are given a little leeway in determining how offensive conduct must be before it rises to the level of unlawful.  But certainly even in the roughest of workplaces, we should not be excusing an employee’s use of the most blatant racial slur in the history of this country.  Nor should the idea that “boys will be boys” allow one employee to direct pointed and hateful comments toward another employee in a fashion that amounts to a threat.

The conduct that Richie Incognito has been accused of is simply not the kind of inappropriate workplace banter that should be excused in a court of law or in the court of public opinion.  Indeed, it is precisely the kind of retaliation and criticism that is being lobbed at Jonathan Martin which intimidates other victims of workplace harassment from making complaints of their own.  If we are going to have any chance of putting this kind of harassment to an end, we need to stop excusing away conduct that is obviously reprehensible; but more importantly, we need to stop vilifying the people who are brave enough to stand up and say they’ve had enough.