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.