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Ethical Responsibilities of the NFL: Incognito, Martin and Sam

Harassment and Cyberbullying have no place in Sports

On February 17 I read a tweet by Richie Incognito that said: “I would like to send Jonathan [Martin] my apologies as well. Until someone tells me different you are still my brother. No hard feelings :)”

This email followed others on February 12 that attacked Martin including: “Jonathan Martin told me he thought about taking his own life in MAY 2013 b/c he wasn't playing well. Told me he felt worthless.” “Dear Jon Martin..... The truth is going to bury you and your entire ‘camp’. You could have told the truth the entire time.” I'm ready to move on with my life and career. I've been dragged through the mud for months by my "best friend".

The series of tweets preceded and then followed the release of the Ted Wells report to the NFL that investigated the alleged harassment and bullying of Martin in the locker room of the Miami Dolphins that was disclosed this past season. The report blames Incognito as the locker room leader of the harassment of Martin. The 144-page report concludes that “Jonathan Martin was repeatedly harassed by three Miami Dolphins teammates…” “Three Dolphins offensive lineman made racial slurs directed at Martin and other wildly inappropriate sexually explicit comments about Martin's mother and sister, the report stated. Also, another Miami offensive lineman and an assistant trainer were harassed.”

The law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP reviewed thousands of documents and conducted more than 100 interviews into its independent investigation that stemmed from Martin saying Richie Incognito bullied and harassed him. Incognito was suspended indefinitely November 3 when he was heard using a racial slur in a voicemail that threatened Martin. Wells said in the report that Martin was subjected to harassment almost every day before leaving the team in October. Incognito was reinstated by the Dolphins on February 4.

The Jonathan Martin case got me thinking about what might happen to Michael Sam in the NFL. In case you don’t know, Sam, an All-American defensive lineman from the University of Missouri and the Associated Press' SEC Defensive Player of the Year, said that he is gay in a February 10 interview with ESPN's "Outside the Lines." Sam stated publicly what his teammates and coaches at Mizzou have known since August: "I am an openly, proud gay man."

Sam is eligible for the NFL draft in May. Assuming that he is drafted, Sam could become the first openly gay player in the history of the NFL. "I understand how big this is," he said. "It's a big deal. No one has done this before. And it's kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be ... I want to be a football player in the NFL."

I have to wonder how players in the NFL will react to Sam's revelation. Tedy Bruschi believes Michael Sam can assimilate into an NFL locker room. But the former New England Patriots linebacker cautions it could take time for some teammates to accept the NFL’s first openly gay player. "It's going to be unusual at first," Bruschi, now an analyst for ESPN, said February 12 on “SportsCenter.” "And I think that's what has to be the process that Sam's going to have to go through because a lot of these players in the NFL do not know him yet -- do not know him as the person that former teammates are talking about, that the University of Missouri is talking about -- that quality of character that he has. They don't know him yet. What they know about him right now is that he's gay.

To me this sounds like Bruschi is saying a new player has to prove his character and being gay somehow plays into it. One has nothing to do with the other. Sam should be accepted as guy with character given his record and achievements at Missouri. If not, it’s almost like saying what we do in the past as a person means nothing with respect to how we are treated now. This makes no sense to me on an ethical level.

I just don’t get it. Why should it matter if a person is gay or straight? Haven’t we evolved enough as a society to judge people on their character and abilities?" Also, the NFL has a history of warmly accepting players who allegedly or actually committed crimes. A perfect example is Ray Lewis, the former Baltimore Ravens all start linebacker. Lewis is considered one of the greatest ever to play the position. Lewis helped build his image over the years while being selected to 13 Pro Bowls and named an Associated Press All-Pro 10 times. He won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2000 and 2003, becoming the sixth player to win the award multiple times. Lewis was also the second linebacker to win the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Award.

Most of the accolades received by Lewis came after his arrest following a Super Bowl XXXIV party in Atlanta on January 31, 2000, when a fight broke out between Lewis and his companions and another group of people, resulting in the stabbing deaths of two people. Lewis and two of his companions were indicted on murder and aggravated-assault charges. Ultimately, the murder charges against Lewis were dismissed in exchange for his testimony against the two companions. Lewis was accepted back into the NFL with open arms.

Others in the NFL have been arrested for carrying guns including Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Andre Smith who was arrested January 18 on a charge of carrying a loaded gun at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. On January 17, Davone Bess, a Cleveland Browns wide receiver, was arrested for assaulting a law enforcement officer at the Fort Lauderdale Airport. On November 25, 2013, A. J. Jefferson, a corner back for the Minnesota Vikings, was arrested and charged with one count of felony assault following a night with his girlfriend.  I could go on but suffice it to say there were about 20 arrests of NFL players last season alone that were investigated by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

My final point is now that the Wells Report has been issued, the NFL should take action against Incognito. It’s time for the League to take a stand on bullying in the locker room. It may be considered a rite of passage by some teams but has no place in civilized sports. Bullying and cyberbullying have become a major problem in our society, especially among young kids. The NFL should come out with a strong statement and strong action against Incognito to send the message to youngsters that such action has no place in the sports world and will be dealt with swiftly.

As for Michael Sam, let’s hope his coming out doesn’t affect how teams view him with respect to his draft status. Let’s hope his teammates are mature enough to treat him fairly and equally. Let’s hope we as a society get to the point where labels such as gay are not used to describe any one person just as we shouldn’t refer to an African-American football player as a black football player.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 19, 2014

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