Bullying in the NFL: Will Wells Report Lead to Change in NFL Policies?

By: Michael Bernstein

Since the Super Bowl brought the National Football League (“NFL”) season to a close there have been an in interesting juxtaposition of developments regarding the league.  On one hand, there was the heartwarming story of draft prospect Michael Sam’s decision to reveal he was homosexual.[1]  While almost simultaneously, Ted Wells released his comprehensive report implicating members of the Miami Dolphins for bullying teammates and team employees.[2]  The close timing of these two stories has led many to wonder if the league is ready to have an openly gay athlete amongst its ranks, and if widespread change might be necessary to preserve the prestigious perception of the league.

One question that must be asked moving forward is whether the problems in the Dolphin’s locker room were unique to Miami or are a widespread occurrence in the modern NFL.  Is the problem here a hotheaded, over-aggressive offensive guard who doesn’t know where to draw the line?  Or is the problem the testosterone driven, alpha male culture of the NFL?  There is no doubt that the problem of Richie Incognito will be addressed.  Incognito was already suspended for the second half of the 2013 season, partially without pay, and sources close to the Dolphins have hinted that he will never play another game for the team.[3]  Furthermore, one executive in personnel for another NFL franchise went as far as suggesting that Incognito go ahead and file his retirement papers, believing that no other team in the NFL will ever take a chance on him again.[4]  The rest of Incognito’s cohorts will surely pay their dues as well, but still to be addressed is what change will come to the league as a whole as a result of all of this.[5]

This is a crucial time for the NFL, not just as a pillar in American sports, but as an organization that employs almost 120,000 people.[6]  Dealing with both the potential good that can come from the Michael Sam announcement, while simultaneously dealing with the potential bad that could arise from the Miami Dolphins situation is certainly no simple task, and the NFL’s next moves will be critical in determining its public perception for the foreseeable future.

Currently, the NFL has no policy in place to combat workplace bullying, hazing, and harassment,[7] a fact that will have to change soon if the league wants to save face.  No longer can the NFL be a place where teamwork is built around rookies picking up five-figure bills at restaurants and taping new guys to goal posts.[8]

The NFL must do whatever it can policy-wise to implement and enforce a zero tolerance policy moving forward.  The league is already facing widespread drops in participation amongst youth due to fear of head trauma,[9] and it can’t afford to lose more due to vicious cultural practices and improper workplace policies.  The NFL has already begun to take strong positions to protect the mental health of players from on field incidents;[10] it is time for it to take similarly strong stances to protect the mental health of players and staff from bullying, hazing, and harassment in its workplaces.

[1] Chris Connelly, Mizzou’s Michael Sam Says He’s Gay, ESPN.com, (Feb. 10, 2014, 5:18 PM), http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/10429030/michael-sam-missouri-tigers-says-gay.

[3] CNN Staff, Richie Incognito, Jonathan Martin, and the NFL’s Future, CNN.com, (Nov. 6, 2013, 11:12 AM), http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/05/us/nfl-martin-incognito-5-questions/.

[4] Tom Pellisero, Incognito May Be At End of Line with Dolphins, NFL, USA Today, (Nov. 4, 2013, 6:47 PM), http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/dolphins/2013/11/04/richie-incognito-jonathan-martin-bullying/3435681/.

[5] Eric Edholm, NFL Futures of Key Players in Dolphins Hazing Case are Very Uncertain, Sports.Yahoo.com, (Feb. 14, 2014, 1:53 PM), http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nfl-shutdown-corner/nfl-futures-key-players-dolphins-hazing-case-very-185321516–nfl.html.

[6] James Parks, NFL Lockout Could Cost $160 Million, 115,000 Jobs, TodaysWorkplace.org, (Dec. 3, 2010), http://www.todaysworkplace.org/2010/12/03/nfl-lockout-could-cost-160-million-115000-jobs/.

[7] Eric Levenson, The NFL Doesn’t Have Any Anti-Hazing Protocol, News.Yahoo.com, (Nov. 5, 2013, 4:05 PM), http://news.yahoo.com/nfl-doesnt-anti-hazing-protocol-210500157.html.

[8] Almost the ENTIRE Miami Dolphins Team Accused of Bullying, DailyMail.co.uk, (Nov. 3, 2013, 4:40 PM), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2486808/Veteran-Miami-Dolphins-forced-rookies-fund-30-000-meals-trips.html.

[9] Steve Fainaru & Mark Fainaru-Wada, Youth Football Participation Drops, ESPN.com, (Nov. 14, 2013, 12:07 PM), http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/page/popwarner/pop-warner-youth-football-participation-drops-nfl-concussion-crisis-seen-causal-factor.

[10] New NFL Rules Designed to Limit Head Injuries, NFL.com, (July 26, 2012, 8:40 PM), http://www.nfl.com/news/story/09000d5d81990bdf/article/new-nfl-rules-designed-to-limit-head-injuries.


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