Preliminary Ethics Observations On The NFL Bullying Scandal

The bully and the bullied.

The bully and the bullied.

If you are unfamiliar with this story, the details are here. There is much that remains in question, but the basic outline of the incident is this:

  • The Miami Dolphins, like most professional football teams and also most college teams, have a tradition of “hazing” rookies, humiliating and harassing them in various way, “all in good fun, of course.”
  • The ironically named Richie Incognito, a starting guard for the Dolphins, was known as an especially relentless and enthusiastic hazer.
  • Last weak, the team’s second-year tackle Jonathan Martin walked out on the squad and checked into to a hospital, saying he could  he could no longer deal with the continued harassment from his teammates.
  • Incognito was shown to have referred to Martin using abusive language and racial epithets in voice messages.
  • Based on the evidence of the voice mails, the Dolphins suspended Incognito, who is being defended by his team mates. Sources are saying that his career with the Dolphins, and perhaps the NFL, may be over.
  • It is likely that the Dolphin coaches were aware of Martin’s hazing.

This is the perfect ethics problem to approach with what I regard as the most important clarifying question in beginning any ethical analysis:  What’s going on here?

In one respect, this is a barn door fallacy episode, which means that a condition that has long existed and that was a disaster waiting to happen finally became a disaster, and now everyone is furiously trying to take responsible actions which should have been taken long ago, while finding blame with individuals who happened to be the ones involved when the ticking bomb blew, and proposing excessively austere systems to prevent what just happened from happening again. Beyond this, the Dolphins episode is naked scapegoating for a larger unethical culture’s practices, aided and abetted by the typically shallow and lazy sportswriting establishment.

Who is responsible for what happened on the Dolphins? The head coach is responsible. His name is Joe Philbin, and in almost all of the early reports on Martin’s breakdown and Incognito’s punishment, he name was only mentioned, if at all, as the outraged coach who suspended the lineman. That’s ridiculous. Philbin should be the one suspended, and now. If he “ordered the code red” on Martin to “toughen him up,’ as some sources are claiming, he’s responsible. If one of his players was being brutally harassed under his nose and he allowed it to go on, he’s responsible. If this was happening on his team and he didn’t know, he’s still responsible. Joe Philbin is responsible for the environment on his team and the conduct of his players. He’s the head coach.

Also responsible: the NFL. It has allowed a hazing culture to get out of hand, and since hazing of any kind is at best stupid and at worst cruel and dangerous, that is irresponsible too. Hazing is supposedly a socialization method to create group bonds, forge commitment, and cement team play. What it too often does is provide an excuse to abuse power and rationalize recreational sadism for those so inclined, as it did in this case. It also easily morphs into bullying. I have read commentary where it is argued that only children can really be bullied—wrong. Bosses bully; spouses bully; parents bully their adult children, and in turn are eventually bullied by them. Bullying involves inequities in power, and they can appear in any setting, including a locker room. Hazing under sensible controls in a team setting need not be dangerous, but I will be surprised if the practice survives the aftermath of this episode. It will be a small loss, if a loss at all, but the entire barn door locking process is such a damaging and wasteful societal habit (See: the TSA) that I hate to see it in even its most benign form

Jonathan Martin is clearly the “egg-shell skull” case in NFL bullying culture. I’m certain that others, maybe hundreds or thousands of other players through the years have endured what Martin did or worse, but he was just unusually vulnerable. That doesn’t mean that what was done without the evident damage to those other players was any less wrong. It was wrong. In torts, there is the doctrine of the egg-shell skull victim, who is hit on the head lightly and whose entire head collapses, because his skull is egg-shell fragile.  The assailant is still liable, responsible and accountable for the damage, because “the victim is as you find him.” The conduct of hitting him on the head was wrong, even if the catastrophic damage wasn’t intended or predictable.   That means Incognito, if indeed he did harass Martin until he cracked, must be punished.

And if the Dolphin coaches did  order the Code Red?

Then we’ll see if the team, its fans and the league can handle the truth.


Sources: The Blaze, Fox, Miami Herald

Graphic: NESN

29 thoughts on “Preliminary Ethics Observations On The NFL Bullying Scandal

  1. “What it too often does is provide an excuse to abuse power and rationalize recreational sadism for those so inclined, as it did in this case. It also easily morphs into bullying.”

    I think you’ve succinctly defined bullying. “Recreational Sadism”. It certainly must come under the heading of sadism.

    • I agree that sadism is recreational. But I don’t think all bullying is sadistic. I give the benefit of doubt even to bullies, pending compelling evidence, on whether their schadenfreude is passive or active. Some bullies overreach so stupidly, they don’t realize they are killing the source of the very same golden eggs they covet.

  2. In many cases this barn door is already locked, and also the cat flap in the barn door… I’ll never forget when my brother joined a group I was already a member of in college and I asked him to toss me a beer from the case he was sitting next to. I was told my own brother had to put the beer back and I had to walk over and pick it up, because asking a pledging member to give me something was “hazing.” Likewise we are no longer allowed to assign official nicknames to pledges, and the word “pledge” will soon be discarded in favor of something more PC. Applying rules like that is what makes me hate authority.

  3. Thank you for this analysis. It demonstrates a productive structural approach to ethical issues, which I find very enlightening. It also makes a lot of common sense.

    Thank you.

  4. I read this whole post waiting to make a witty “you can’t handle the truth” reference, and you RUINED it for me. Not that I shouldn’t have seen it coming a mile away….

    This is awful — as you have articulated — but, of course, it unfortunately will get little empathy from the masses. “Why feel bad for the poor hazed pro-football player, you should see what I have to do deal with every single day, and I don’t make thousands for playing a game [blah blah blah].”

    Also, what is the solution? We can turn into a full-on nanny state, which few people want. Or, we can assume/trust that people will act rationally, independently and humanely at all times — which we know has never and will never happen.

    So — given human nature — will we always have bullying?

    • Beth. In a word…Yes.
      But, we have to do what we can to discourage it without going full nanny state. It’s pretty surprising that it still exists so openly considering the number of cameras that are always around.
      Nanny state is closer than we’d like to think. But, as you say human nature will find a way.
      I’m more and more convinced ethical/moral people will be less likely to bully (or any of hundreds of other actions) but a nanny state doesn’t produce moral or ethical people.

    • Yes, we will always have bullying. No, the state is not the solution for policing/amending personal non-criminal behavior.

      Solution? Quit raising generations of helpless drones that look to the central authority for succor. Start teaching children and adults its not only OK to stand up against jerks, but it’s civically beneficial to do so.

      • I’m not sure that’s the solution either. Bullying is universal. I grew up in an overwhelmingly libertarian town — thus all the bullies I knew came from libertarian families. We can’t enforce or teach good parenting unfortunately.

        • Yeah, certainly the source of bullies can be debated and methods to rectify the parenting that creates bullies would be useful. But my comments don’t discuss that. My comments discuss the victims and bystanders of bullying, and empowering them to stand up for good against bad.

          Institutionally we discourage the good individual to assert himself/herself for civic benefit if that ever involves possible force or danger. It’s a dumb policy. But empowering individuals doesn’t create the kind of cultural landscape conducive to collectivism.

          • You know, some kids just can’t stand up to bullies. I was an emotionally strong kid, and I took on the bullies at an early age in elementary school — boys and girls. And you’re right — that strategy 100% works. (I later became a bit of a bully in high school, but that was a brief and regretful chapter of my life.) But some kids can’t. My teenage niece has struggled with this since middle school. My sister has enlisted my help over the years to get her to stand up to them. But my niece just could not do it. No amount of role playing, confidence-building, parental support can help a kid who is too shy or emotionally fragile to confront them.

            Eventually, the problem went away with time and now as a senior she has a nice group of friends — but only because she found herself a nice new circle. But she endured almost 5 years of bullying at some level.

            I have no answer to this problem. I look at my own girls, and I can tell already that we have one strong personality and one shy, sensitive child. I don’t think my sensitive child will stand a chance if this happens to her.

            • Okie. So exceptions to the rule of successfully empowering people compels us to disempower everyone? You haven’t convinced me.

              Good strong kids can inevitably be relied upon to protect the weaker kids from bullies. If only our culture still pushed heroic ideals.

              But it doesn’t. The powers of collectivism can’t stomach the notion.

              • I’m not sure what you’re saying here. You do realize I’m in agreement with you, right? My only point is that this solution doesn’t work for everyone. So, yes, we should let kids push back on their bullies without punishment. But what do we do about the kids who lack the ability to push back? Relying on a potential savior through another kid isn’t going to cut it. Maybe we just should accept a certain percentage of losses.

          • “[E]mpowering individuals doesn’t create the kind of cultural landscape conducive to collectivism.”

            Good one, Tex. I also believe that rule by orchestration of bully mobs doesn’t create the kind of cultural landscape conducive to individuals’ empowerment or beneficial egalitarianism.

            Perhaps a corollary is: Religious devotion to collectivism disserves all, as a kind of gateway drug to societies’ addictions to tolerance of individuals’ and tribes’ impotence in response to bullying.

            Or something like that.

  5. How far do you take this analysis?
    Basic training for most of the armed forces would probably be considered bullying, but necessary for a uniform command structure and group cohesion that is necessary for organization.
    The special forces are probably even more extreme.
    36-hour on-call shifts for medical residents? (Do they still have those?) I understood that physical and mental exhaustion is an acknowledged by-product of that sort of shift, but they are done because there is a benefit to such immersion (and the expectation that you be completely on task, even after 30 hours of work with little sleep).
    My high school basketball coach was particularly sadistic (maybe sadistic is too strong a word, but he definitely used his authority) when it came to running. Everyone shot a free throw and everyone ran a sprint for each free throw anyone missed. Was he being a bully? I don’t think so. He was telling us that you can’t miss a free throw (they should be the easiest points you ever score), and he was giving us cardio training at the same time (you can’t afford to get winded while playing). He had so many creative ways to make us run laps, etc. But, we needed the training.
    What do you call the behavior that is just on this side of the bully divide?

    • Military training often slips into bullying and sadism. My father, who was a drill instructor and later a commanding officer, had to step in and stop abuse often. The Incognito situation isn’t about training, it’s about one player harassing another. I don’t think we need to brave slippery slope arguments to condemn that…or college hazing, for that matter. Frat boys aren’t fighting wars; they don’t have to experience torture in case another frat house captures them.

      • No, I do not think it is a slippery slope. The way I look at it is that group dynamics evolve on a continuum and where is the dividing line between innocent horseplay and bullying? Some of it might be in the intent of the actor, but, as you suggest, some of it depends on the victim.

        As the saying goes, “it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.” That gives you a bright line rule.

        But, you can’t draw the line at training to fight wars. Because, group dynamics being what they are, there is always the possibility of tension within the group leading to discord and even “light hazing” (whatever that may be) could be considered bullying.


        • “But, you can’t draw the line at training to fight wars. Because, group dynamics being what they are, there is always the possibility of tension within the group leading to discord and even “light hazing” (whatever that may be) could be considered bullying.”

          Except that the military (and most other rigorous professions) have training protocols and specific plans to become proficient at tasks. Those outlines often describe rough and difficult scenario for trainees to undergo. That isn’t hazing or bullying. That is realistic training.

          Each organization (especially in the military) allows its leaders a certain latitude to ‘customize’ training, and sometimes that customization could be perceived as bullying were it seen as excessive and pointless – but again, I’d submit it depends very much on intent of the actor, amount of the action, and mental state of the receiver. Your concerns best arise from the interactions that occur outside of those formal events but still inside the hierarchy.

    • I don’t think your examples qualify as bullying. Certain professions in life call for rigorous training regimens, such as those you listed. Rigorous training certainly cannot qualify if the training itself replicates as accurately as possible the rigorous situations in which the trained individual may have to perform their task.

      Bullying is very much dependent on the internal goings on of the bully as well as the internal goings on of the victim. What are the motivations of the actor and what is the ability to receive such action by the receiver?

      From my observations of rigorous training in the military, hazing in the military and bullying in the military, there are definite differences. In my first unit, new lieutenants (I was one) were tackled by their platoon in hand-to-hand combat. Obviously the ambushed LT stood no chance of winning a 1 on 20 fight. This was hazing — but it performed an immediate valuable service: it let the platoon members know if their LT was aggressive or not, it also let the platoon members know if their LT took themselves too seriously or not (you see, some of the LT’s took it personally and ordered their men off of them), it allowed the platoon to size up the strength and resilience of their new LT.

      New soldiers, fresh from basic training, generally didn’t end their 1st day at the unit having done fewer than 500-1000 pushups. They would be smoked by most of the NCO’s in the unit as a matter of practice. The smokings were NEVER in a disciplinary tone. This was hazing — it too performed the same valuable services as the new LT hazing. Additionally, it helped remind new cocky guys who mastered basic training, that hey, you aren’t big fish in the pond.

      When do instances like this spill over into bullying or outright assault?

      On occasion, you’d note an NCO who took more personal pleasure out of the misery of a lower ranking solider. When personal pleasure is the driving force behind the hazing, I’d submit that that is one instance to classify as bullying. Sometimes, a soldier, who has displayed no deficiencies, and the only mark ‘against’ him is being new, received multiple day long hazing events. This was rare, but, again, I’d submit that the value of the initial good-natured hazing had worn off by then and the conduct towards the soldier at that point have become bullying.

      If a soldier was ever so humiliated that they could never truly regain their professional stature in the unit, that would qualify as well. Fortunately, I never saw that instance.

    • “What do you call the behavior that is just on this side of the bully divide?”

      ?? Acute, or seasonal, beneficent authoritarianism? (like martial law)
      ?? Parenting, or paternalistic “tough love?”

      I don’t know. I’m just brainfarting.

  6. Can we draw a definitional line between “training” and “bullying?”

    The Armed Forces “train” soldiers hard — because it may save their lives and the lives of others.

    Fraternities, professional sports teams, schools, and others have “members of the team” bullying — not for training for an important, vital activity (like the military), but for the fun of it.

    We are a nation of bullies — from the President on down — and the only reason for it is that it make the bully in question feel better about his own insecurities, and assume power that is undeserved.

    • “We are a nation of bullies — from the President on down — and the only reason for it is that it make[s] the bully in question feel better about his own insecurities, and assume power that is undeserved.”

      Thought-provoking comment, Elizabeth.

      Why do we see and hear so much rhetoric by opponents of “liberals” which is obviously hypocritical? And, why are liberals behaving so conservatively in so many ways these days? Finally, why in this country today is it so reliably true that, “What the left wants, the left gets?”

      Consider: “Conservatives” largely agree that the typical liberal attitude embodies arrogance, to wit: “We (liberals) know better than others what is best for all.” I also know this because of my family: Conservatives (at least, the ones I know) are offended by that attitude, because conservatives agree pretty much unanimously (and without allowance for exception) that they, not others, know best what is best for themselves. Despite conservatives’ taking of offense, however, if one examines honestly, it is obvious that conservatives possess exactly the same attitude as liberals: “We (conservatives) know better than you (liberals, or, “the rest of you”) what is best for yourselves, and best for all.” The difference between conservatives and liberals can be seen in the contrast between how “what is best” is proposed to be made available: either by meddlesome controls (typically favored by liberals) or by “empowering” via neglect or something akin to neglect (typically favored by conservatives).

      But then, and from there, the distinctions between U.S. conservatives and liberals are blurry. I won’t belabor that point, but in its defense I encourage thoughtful review of attitudes toward abortion, for one example.

      Assuming that the no-winners, polarized left-right state of politics in the U.S. essentially reflects competition between diverse whistleblowers and grievance-articulators, what else besides greed, arrogance and incompetence (on both left and right) explains why whistleblowers on the left seem to garner, relatively and so much more easily, so much more attention, respect, and what I call Bully Passes than do whistleblowers on the right, on matters for which whistles are blown?

      Apathy? Ignorance? Uncompromising collectivism versus uncompromising individualism?

      I submit that a large disparity in (the lack of) ethics, between leftist leaders combined with their supporting populations vis-a-vis rightist leaders with their supporting populations, explains the seeming inevitability and comparative staying power of the American left’s successes (that is, referring to “successes” as “getting their way”). The left is simply more ruthless, more ethics-bereft in strategy, tactics and practice, than the right: What the left wants, the left gets (“Just win, baby!”). Far more effectively than the (perhaps, self-limiting, self-defeating?) right, the left justifies its means by way of its achieved ends. The result is an epidemic “unholier-than-thou,-and-entitled-to-it” attitude in leftists. That attitude is perhaps reinforced by successes in recent centuries’ tribal and provincial grudges and wars against older, previously unchallenged forms of authoritarianism, elitism, and class distinction, in favor of more “democratized” power.

      “Progress” against old-school liars has required “superior,” new-school lying and liars. Ironic?

      En route to that re-distribution of power toward the idealized “democracy,” the left in the U.S. has managed to revert to exactly the behaviors which its adherents claim to abhor. Ironic?

  7. Reblogged this on Shouts from the Abyss and commented:
    A thoughtful article regarding the Richie Incognito incident in the NFL. In other news, did you know the NFL considers itself a “nonprofit trade organization,” so over a half billion dollars collected by the league office since 2010 was not subject to taxation by the Internal Revenue Service. In other words the taxpayers are subsidizing high jinx like this and so much more. What makes me wonder: Is there anything the NFL can’t do?

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