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Dolphin Tale — Hopeful or Harrowing Lessons on Bullying?

Despite the ugliness of football player Richie Incognito’s behavior, the fallout from the incident may one day be seen as a step in the right direction.

November 13, 2013
Related Topics: Performance Management, Employee Communication, Awards & Honors, Organizational Culture, Values, Motivating Employees, Diversity, Ethics

By now you’ve probably heard about the situation on the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, where player Jonathan Martin left the team amid alleged bullying by teammate Richie Incognito.

The details about Incognito’s harassment are ugly. But it seems to me the incident will one day be viewed in a positive light — as perhaps one of the last nails in the coffin of work cultures that tolerate bullying and an unhealthy hyper-masculinity.

First the ugliness. Incognito reportedly took the rookie hazing common to football teams to an extreme, calling the biracial Martin a racial slur and threatening to slap his mother and kill him. Martin also allegedly felt pressured to pay $15,000 for a Las Vegas trip he didn’t even go on. Earlier this month, Martin decided he’d had enough. He left the team and reportedly sought counseling help.

The reaction by some observers also was disturbing. Many accused Martin of being soft and not “manning up” to challenge Incognito, who has a troubling history including being voted the league’s dirtiest player. Miami Dolphins players also seemed to side with Incognito. One former black Dolphins player seemed to excuse Incognito’s racial slur, called him an “honorary” black man.

But amid all the discouraging behavior and commentary there have been encouraging developments. For one, the incident has opened debate about what it means to be a black man and a man generally. Jason Whitlock, a black ESPN writer, called out the self-destructive version of black male identity that aligns itself with Incognito’s retrograde behavior, that reacts “violently to the slightest sign of disrespect or disagreement.”

More generally, the Dolphins debacle has cast light on the way caveman masculinity is increasingly out of touch with what it takes to succeed today. Martin hails from Stanford University, known foremost for its academic excellence rather than boorish frat parties. But the cerebral types from Stanford have been winning in the world of football in recent years. The Stanford football team is currently ranked 4th in the nation. Former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh moved to the San Francisco 49ers pro team and took them to the Super Bowl last year.

Stanford grad Richard Sherman, now on the Seattle Seahawks, is one of the best at his position as defensive back. And ex-Stanford Cardinal Andrew Luck is leading his Indianapolis Colts team toward the playoffs as one of the most impressive quarterbacks in the league.

Dolphins players may have rallied around Incognito, but NFL players overall appear to recognize that he is on the wrong side of history. An ESPN poll found that players throughout the league would rather have Martin on their team over Incognito by a better than a 2-to-1 ratio. What’s more, the Dolphins organization suspended Incognito indefinitely for his conduct.

There’s a larger way that the traditional, alpha-male, dominating approach to being a man is a recipe for trouble in today’s professional settings. This goes beyond lawsuits for various kinds of harassment and workplace violence. In networked, flat, matrixed, global workplaces, men and women alike have to lead influencing, by caring, by listening as much as talking.

In fact, the Martin v. Incognito stand-off also calls attention to the way introverts have powerful lessons for our extrovert-happy culture. Martin is described as soft-spoken compared to the brash Incognito. But by walking away from — and reporting — the bullying he experienced, Martin in his quiet way triggered nationwide soul-searching about sports and workplaces.

And increasingly, that debate is headed in a more civilized, enlightened direction. One of the most searing voices about the situation was Brian Phillips of sports site Grantland. His takedown of the macho culture of the NFL and Incognito defenders ended with this zinger about what it really means to be a strong man:

"There were so many tough men in that Dolphins locker room. The unwritten code of football is that you handle your business in-house. Any one of these men could have said something to stop Incognito and help Martin. Any one of them could have handled it. They're warriors, right? They're paragons of strength. And yeah, there are complex reasons why they didn't. But they didn't."

An ugly situation, with the right take-away put beautifully.

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