Days after the NFL said it was ready to make history by welcoming its first openly gay player, a report indicates that one team in the league promoted an intolerant locker room culture that harassed a player to the brink of suicide.
Three Miami Dolphins players used “racial slurs and other racially derogatory language” as well as “homophobic name-calling and improper physical touching” to bully teammate Jonathan Martin as well as another player and an assistant trainer, both unnamed, according to independent investigator Ted Wells, who filed his report to the league on Friday.
The revelations come after prospect Michael Sam, a 2013 All-American, announced on Sunday that he is gay, putting him on course to be the first openly gay athlete in any of the major American team sports. Sam was voted by coaches as the top defensive player in the Southeastern Conference, college football’s toughest league.
Wells’ report provides an unflattering snapshot of a locker room culture where off-color remarks about sexual preference and race are commonplace. Even so, the harassment Martin and the others received startled even veteran NFL players.
“I’ve been in some bad locker rooms, but they weren’t dysfunctional in that they were demeaning to people,” said former NFL lineman Ed Cunningham, who played for Arizona and Seattle in the 1990s. “We had fights, but they were based on something that was done dirty on the playing field, or because someone thought they were going to get cut and were jealous. . . . To hear about that type of [Dolphins] locker room was shocking to me.”
It is unclear what the NFL will do next, but sensitivity training is likely to be a point of emphasis at the league’s annual rookie symposium, which is mandatory for every incoming draft class and covers a wide array of topical issues and concerns.
The league has a history with Roger Goodell as commissioner of moving to stamp out bad behavior. The New England Patriots were fined $750,000 and lost a first-round draft choice when caught videotaping an opposing team’s signals. And the New Orleans Saints were hit with several suspensions — losing head Coach Sean Payton for an entire season — when an alleged pay-to-injure bonus system was revealed.
Earlier this week, the league reacted with plaudits to the news about Sam. “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” the NFL said in a statement. “Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
Details in Wells’ 144-page report about Martin’s experience in his two seasons as an NFL player indicate at least one team might not be so ready. The report says Martin was so distraught by the treatment of his Dolphins teammates — specifically fellow offensive linemen Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey — that he twice contemplated suicide in 2013. He finally quit the team last fall, in the middle of the season.
In his report, Wells acknowledges the juxtaposition of the Martin and Sam situations. “With the recent announcement by Michael Sam . . . that he is gay, it is even more urgent that a tolerant atmosphere exist throughout the league,” Wells wrote. “The frequent use of homophobic insults undermines this goal.”
“Michael Sam coming into the league puts the NFL locker room under the microscope even more,” Cunningham said. “The league needs to be very diligent in the actions that come out of this [Dolphins] report, make sure they’re followed through, listen to the reaction of the fans and the public. The coincidence of the timing of this is very important to the NFL and how they’re seen.”
One labor expert said the NFL is facing an image crisis over its handling of concussions and health issues of retired players, the controversy surrounding the Redskins nickname, and the coarse culture of locker rooms — which have become more public as technology and TV have brought fans increasingly closer to what happens on and off the field.
“All of these things suggest that the game is insufficiently sensitive to both civility, good manners and fair treatment,” said Stanford law professor William B. Gould, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board. “This is something that’s going to become increasingly important.”
In independent written statements, the NFL, the NFL Players Assn. and the Dolphins said they intended to review the Wells report before commenting.
Martin, who played at Harvard-Westlake High and Stanford, hopes to return to the NFL next season, said his agent, Kenny Zuckerman, who added that Martin “is glad that this is behind him.”
Incognito’s lawyer, Mark Schamel, called the Wells report “replete with errors.”
“It is disappointing that Mr. Wells would have gotten it so wrong, but not surprising,” Schamel said in a written statement. “The truth, as reported by the Dolphins players and as shown by the evidence, is that Jonathan Martin was never bullied by Richie Incognito or any member of the Dolphins Offensive line. We are analyzing the entire report and will release a thorough analysis as soon as it is ready.”
Martin, 24, abruptly left the Dolphins and checked himself into a mental hospital Oct. 28 after his fellow offensive linemen pranked him in the team cafeteria by leaving the table as soon as he sat down. According to the report, that was the culmination of months of degrading and racially derogatory behavior that had marginalized the second-year player.
Six days later, representatives of Martin turned over to the Dolphins evidence of alleged harassment, including a vulgar voicemail from Incognito that had already been leaked to media outlets. The Dolphins immediately suspended Incognito, a member of the team’s leadership council, and turned to Goodell for help.
Wells was hired by the league Nov. 6, and he conducted more than 100 interviews during the three months that followed, talking to every player and coach in the organization, and to Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. Wells also reviewed more than 1,300 text messages between Incognito and Martin. He said those two developed “an odd but seemingly close” friendship and that both used “crude, misogynistic and homophobic” language in their messages to each other.
Wells determined that Martin, who is biracial, “participated in off-color jokes to fit in,” and cited a consultant, a psychologist who specializes in workplace conflicts, who said the way Martin acted “is consistent with the behavior of a victim of abusive treatment.”
Several of the text messages cited in the report are crude sexual comments written by Martin’s teammates about his mother and sister.
Even after Martin left the team, Incognito, who is white, was still widely popular among Dolphins teammates. The report says racial slurs were commonplace with the Dolphins and also were used by linemen Jerry, who is black, and Pouncey, who is biracial.
“We also found it relevant that Incognito established what appear to be close friendships with black teammates, and that many of them passionately defended Incognito in the wake of his suspension — in media reports and in our interviews — even after it had become well-known that Incognito” had used a racial slur to address Martin, Wells wrote.
The report says Martin has a history of being bullied dating to his days in middle school, and that the player acknowledged wrestling with alcohol and drug issues.
“It may seem odd to some that Martin, a professional football player with imposing physical stature, could be described as a victim of bullying or harassment,” Wells wrote, “but even big, strong athletes are not immune from vulnerability to abusive behavior.”
The Wells report identifies another Dolphins offensive linemen, referred to as “Player A,” who was a frequent target of homosexual slurs and innuendoes. Even Martin made private comments to Incognito about him, nicknaming him “Loose Booty.”
Offensive line coach Jim Turner participated in the taunting, including giving Player A an inflatable male doll as a Christmas gift in 2012. Turner told investigators he had no memory of doing that.
An unnamed Dolphins assistant trainer of Japanese descent also was subjected to taunts.
The report says that on the 2012 anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, “Incognito, Jerry and Pouncey donned traditional Japanese headbands that featured a rising sun emblem (which the Assistant Trainer had given them) and jokingly threatened to harm the Assistant Trainer physically in retaliation.”
That the NFL immediately released an uncensored version of the Wells report to the public could suggest Goodell plans to act swiftly and harshly against those deemed at fault.
“I suppose they’re going to have to do something about this particular incident,” Gould said. “And the real question is, are they going to do something about the culture that led to this incident? The jury is out on that.”