Did the Dolphins Do Anything Wrong?
Occasionally there is a story that moves the needle past the sports pages and into the larger spotlight of societal issues and public concern. That is now the case with the news out of Miami involving Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito. To me, the information that has become public knowledge—including the explosive voicemails, comments from Dolphins players, an ex-teammate's insider look—only raises more questions than it answers. And as signaled by the NFL appointing investigator Ted Wells to do a thorough review of the situation, we are still in the early chapters of this book.
Beyond the discussion of locker room culture and what is acceptable in the testosterone-filled world of professional football, let’s look at more systemic issues of the Miami Dolphins as well as every NFL team.
Solid man, solid coach
I remember when Joe Philbin came into the Packer organization, having come from coaching offensive linemen at the University of Iowa, which was preceded by time at Harvard. I found him to be different than the stereotypical offensive line coach: the snarling, in-your-face coach trying to coax the most out of a group of oversized guys who often travel in packs. Joe was intelligent, almost cerebral, with a strong value system and a true family-first hierarchy in his life.
Joe, of course, had the unspeakable loss of his son in January 2012 in what turned out to be his final month in Green Bay. And I know this: he, his wife Diane and their children left a lasting impact on the Green Bay community. They are missed there as they touched many lives in that area.
I also know offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and his family quite well, having worked closely with Mike when he was head coach and general manager of the Packers. Mike, like Joe, is a principled leader with strong moral fiber and, like Joe, extremely devoted to his family.
Both Joe and Mike are solid and upright men; I have seen that up close. Thus, it makes it hard to reconcile reports of either tacit approval of Incognito’s reported actions towards Martin or, worse, encouragement of it. As we all should, I will wait until the facts come out in the independent investigation, but the reports of what happened under Joe and Mike’s watch seem out of character for what I saw up close with them.
Sanctity of the locker room
The “what did they know” question is difficult: one of degree and dependent on context and the atmosphere and philosophy of the organization. Personal issues between players are usually kept below the surface, rarely rising to the level of involvement from the coaches or the front office. And the locker room is, in the view of most organizations, a sanctuary for the players, safe from intrusion from coaches and management (although I was usually quite welcome in the Packers’ locker room, as I sometimes came bearing paychecks).
To some players, the locker room is even more: it can be a player’s office and perhaps even a refuge from problems at home. I remember seeing one player who always stayed late sitting at his locker until well into the evening. I asked him once why he always stayed so late. He replied that he simply did not want to go home. When that happened, I referred him for some counseling, which he appreciated.
Last month I detailed the dysfunctional atmosphere of mistrust in Tampa Bay, noting that I heard similar accounts from different player agents of random walks through the locker room by coaches, seen as a breach of trust by the staff. There have also been reports over the years of other teams’ coaches and management secretly recording the locker room, giving those coaches and management reputations that are hard to overcome.
There are certain team employees, however, that have a better handle on what is happening with the players than others. Teams have several layers to them, and the best organizations have strong communication channels between those layers without barriers to access.
I always thought some of the most integral members of our staff were what I call the “bartenders” of the team. These are employees that pick up on the vibe of the team and any percolating issues while performing their important duties. The bartenders include staff from the following areas: equipment management, training, security, strength and conditioning and even facility operations. In my experience, players were more comfortable around these employees than even their position coaches and certainly more than coordinators, head coaches and management. Brett Favre, for instance, had a wonderful relationship with these guys, hunting with some and having a couple down to Mississippi to visit. The bartenders are the eyes and ears of the organization.
There were rare times when player issues gleaned from the bartenders merited involvement from higher levels of the organization. They knew the information they heard was kept from moving through channels of the organization unless it was serious enough to warrant attention. I rarely intervened in player issues and only when it was called for. Some examples of issues that I felt called for “interventions” were (1) when a player was livid that another had “stolen” a marketing deal that the player thought he had; (2) a player who felt a position coach was “out to get him” (we had a sit down with him and the coach and talked through it); and (3) a dispute between players about a woman (there are always women). Those issues, however, seem rather benign compared to what we are hearing in Miami.
With the amount of people in an NFL organization devoted to the product—the players—it would be surprising for this behavior to go unnoticed.
All NFL teams also now have a Director of Player Engagement (formerly called Director of Player Programs), someone specifically entrusted with assisting players, especially younger ones, assimilate into the team as well as provide guidance to interpersonal issues between players. My sense is we will hear more about the person at the Dolphins entrusted with this role, Kaleb Thornhill, though it's important to stress we know nothing about his involvement in the situation.
We simply do not know which Dolphins employees knew what about this 18-month relationship between Incognito and Martin. Nor do we know when the behavior of Incognito moved from “boys will be boys” to something more sinister. It was reported that Incognito was told to “toughen up” Martin, but that is yet another piece of information coming out of this story that needs more context, which will hopefully come out in the investigation.
I will say this: with the amount of people in an NFL organization devoted to the product—the players—it would be surprising for this behavior to go unnoticed. There would appear to be, at best, a failure to appreciate the gravity of the conduct or, at worst, an empowerment of the continued behavior.
As my saying goes ... there will be lawyers. In addition to Wells, there will be at least one lawyer for everyone: Martin (including his parents, both lawyers), Incognito, the NFLPA, the NFL and most importantly, the Dolphins. I am sure the Dolphins are huddling with inside and outside counsel to explore what they knew and potential exposure and liability.
I would also expect active involvement from the agents of the two players, both experienced and respected by teams. Martin is represented by Kenny Zuckerman of Priority Sports and Incognito is represented by Dave Dunn of Athletes First. (Dunn, representative for Aaron Hernandez and Alfonzo Dennard among others, has had an eventful year.)
With the bounty case, concussion stories and now this, the seamy underbelly of the NFL is being exposed. Events like these pull back the curtain on a grainy and graphic book behind the glossy and glittery cover. Stay tuned.