In recent days, we have learned that a 290 pound NFL offensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins, Jonathan Martin, was reluctant to complain about obnoxious, racist bullying by a teammate, and instead chose to take a leave of absence. Only after the Dolphins – his employer – claimed that the leave was unrelated to the behavior of teammates did Martin’s agent complain to the NFL and expose the Dolphins’ claimed innocence as an attempted cover up of behavior that has no place in any workplace.
And today we learned that Dolphin coaches told Incognito to “toughen up” Martin during the spring, which was followed by the racist voicemail message. And the Dolphins didn’t know about it?
If a 290 pound offensive lineman is afraid to complain to the team’s coach, general manager, or the owner, why do so many people not understand why everyday workers are afraid to complain about similar treatment in ordinary workplaces? And why do so many co-workers who observe or know of the behavior not do something? The short answer: ordinary workers fear retaliation for making complaints.
When Martin suddenly left the team last week, he did not complain about the use of vulgar racial epithets because he was afraid it would short curcuit his NFL career; much less powerful workers – the minimum wage single mother and every other employee who relies upon a steady paycheck – often fear complaints will fall on deaf ears or result in a cover up, much like the Dolphins initially attempted.
We applaud the Dolphins for suspending the bully Richie Incognito, but they did so only after it was clear that the agent for Martin was not going to allow the Dolphins to claim a lack of knowledge and bury the issue. It is hard to imagine that Dolphin players and coaches did not know why Martin left, but the Dolphins did nothing until Martin’s agent made the complaint. Was it because Incognito was an All-Pro and the Dolphins were prepared to allow his bullying at the expense of Martin?
How many other racist or sexist Richie Incognitos are known in American workplaces but are tolerated because they drive financial results? We hear stories frequently from employees who experience bullying behavior from co-workers or supervisors but are afraid to report the abuse. But they also believe that their companies often are aware of the problem, choose to tolerate it, and are prepared to claim a lack of knowledge while invoking a defense of “she should have complained.”
Let’s hope that other employers learn the lesson that known bullying in any form, much less racial or sexual bullying, should never be tolerated even if the victim feels powerless to complain. The Dolphins should have dealt with their bully long before Martin felt compelled to leave the team.