Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin has the opportunity to do something few, if any, in the NFL have ever done before: Establish a stand against bullying and conveniently set a precedent that saves his locker room in the process.
Earlier this week, Dolphins second-year tackle Jonathan Martin left the team as a result of what has widely been reported as a bullying incident. According Fox Sports' Alex Marvez—and credit to Marvez, as this is a significant and important get—Martin was given a derogatory nickname by teammates and forced to endure ridicule of his own family members:
This wasn't an abrupt action by Martin, who is Stanford-educated and the son of two lawyers who attended Harvard University. A source said Martin has tried dealing with a slew of indignities that crossed into personal and family insults, including being bestowed with the nickname of "Big Weirdo."
In response, the Dolphins have largely played it coy. They continue to refer to Martin's absence as an "illness" and refuse to discuss the issue beyond that incredibly vague company line.
It's not necessarily the wrong move. Clearly, there is much to sort out in the Miami locker room. If coaches weren't aware this has been going on, they must quickly ascertain the goings-on behind closed doors, and do so in a way that allows appropriate flexibility in reaction.
In order to maintain consistency in my beliefs, I really do think coaches need to be held accountable for knowing what's going on in their own locker rooms, lest I retract my year-old argument that Sean Payton be held accountable for the transgressions in his backyard.
The Dolphins must make a move, and soon, because this is one of those moments that means something beyond football. From a leadership standpoint, it's just the right thing to do.
Let's first address that bullying remains a major problem in the United States. It's a topic very much at the forefront of our social consciousness.
Lee Hirsch's 2011 documentary Bully largely popularized public awareness of this issue, and continued community campaigns have furthered an agenda aimed at shedding light on a malicious cultural phenomenon (with subsets like cyberbullying) which has tragically resulted in a number of victim suicides.
The grim press clippings are plentiful. Whether it's a 15-year-old boy from Illinois, a 12-year-old girl from Florida or a sixth-grader from North Carolina, the results are recent and hauntingly plentiful. The fact is that we live in a society where bullying is easier—if nothing else, through the veil of anonymity or the emotional distance of online interactions—and seemingly crueler than ever before.
We live in a society where a girl was sent messages encouraging her to "drink bleach and die", with the bully bragging even after the victim's death. We live in a time where young people candidly take pictures of each other and trade them through social media as fodder for ridicule, jokes and cruelty. Hell, it's not even kids victimizing kids any more. As social media has grown, even parents have become bullies.
The context is endless. Bullying is a major social problem that must be addressed.
And guess what? A visible team in the country's most visible sporting league—the NFL—which commands the most time on airwaves and the most network reach, has the opportunity to address the problem of bullying in a meaningful way.
This isn't just about the opportunity to organize house within the Dolphins organization. This is about the opportunity for someone in the public spotlight to take a stand, to join a number of others already taking a stand and say that this is not okay. It the opportunity to say that we can, and should, expect more from each other and set standards of basic human interaction.
This is about an opportunity for general manager Jeff Ireland, Philbin and the Dolphins organization to come forward and face the press with a firm stance against a major cultural blight. It is a chance for them to affect meaningful influence in an effort to bring to light what will not be accepted when it comes to bullying.
Maybe if we acknowledge that 6'5", 320-pound NFL players can be the victims of bullying and that even the NFL's "tough guy" culture isn't invincible when it comes to this malicious behavior, we can broadcast the meaningful message that it's okay to admit when you're a victim.
It doesn't matter how old you are, how big you are or how tough you're supposed to be. It's okay to expect more from the people you interact with on a daily basis and it's okay to expect those in power to police meaningful change.
What can't be okay is a months-long campaign to terrorize another human being. It just can't, and I'm sure there are legions of internet tough guys out there who would hold that Martin is weak and that being called "Big Weirdo" is no big deal. It is, especially in the context of a repeated and concentrated effort to degrade someone, but hey, ignorance is ignorance and I realize you can't win all of the battles.
But I would think, at the very least, we can agree that making disparaging comments about another man's family is completely off-limits. That's not to say the occasional "your mom" quip—if that indeed is still kept alive by the last glowing ember still warming the backside of the "swag" movement—won't pass without consequences.
Let's form no illusions here, though, Martin clearly wasn't the victim of a passing joke. His family was insulted. That's his blood and that's not okay. None of what has happened to Martin is okay.
Beyond the larger social implications, what kind of precedent would Ireland and Philbin be setting for the Dolphins if they sweep this one under the rug? Imagine if this behavior was suddenly acceptable—condoned through inaction or otherwise allowed to continue without intervention from above—in your workplace. These guys are supposed to be your brothers.
Could you go into work every day knowing that your coworkers wanted to make your life miserable, insult your family or make you feel isolated and alone, unique in your victimization?
Quite honestly, this reeks of toxicity in the locker room. The Dolphins can't treat it with a pair of rubber gloves and a shoulder shrug. This demands a full deconstruction of the locker room in order to find whatever source of radioactivity has perpetuated such a hostile work environment. This demands an investigation from the team with meaningful action.
If they don't and let this one slide or if they establish that it's okay for employees to engage in acts of cruelty and bring family members into the equation, then they lose the workplace, just like any workplace that lets the inmates run the proverbial asylum.
Ireland and Philbin have a chance to broadcast a meaningful social message in a "tough guy" culture. Maybe some kid hears that message who otherwise wouldn't speak up because he feels that is expected to deal with it. Maybe an adult finally recognizes that bullying can, and does, extend beyond the confines of childhood.
In the same breath, the Dolphins have an opportunity to reclaim their locker room and regain control of an organization, which admittedly isn't staffed with the most content employees these days anyway, according to Armando Salguero of The Miami Herald.
There's only one play for Miami here—take Martin's ordeal seriously. Find who participated in these acts, who owns responsibility for this reprehensible behavior and punish them—meaningfully. That discussion should absolutely include the possibility of suspension or expulsion. After all, do you really want someone in your locker room who actively scares other players away?
Miami's leadership contingent can be heroes or they can be participants in a problem that extends beyond its locker room.
It's their choice, but I'll be damned if it doesn't seem like an extremely simple one to make.