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Who is Responsible for NFL Bullying?

MartinNow what?

An independent investigation has concluded that Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin  was bullied and harassed by team mates, forcing him to leave the team midway through the season.

Ted Wells, an attorney who was retained by the National Football League to investigate Martin’s abrupt departure from the Dolphins last fall, concludes in his report that three starters on the Dolphins offensive line, “engaged in a patterns of harassment directed at not only at Jonathan Martin, but also another young Dolphins offensive lineman and an assistant trainer.”  He named Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey.

The report states that Martin was “taunted on a persistent basis with sexually explicit remarks about his  sister and his mother and at times ridiculed with racial insults and other offensive comments.”  The report alleges the assistant trainer  was the object of racial slurs and the offensive lineman was subjected to homophobic name-calling and improper physical touching.

Dolphins Exonerated?

The Martin case raises the question of whether  the NFL tolerates abuse on the theory that it dehumanizes and “toughens up” players,  making  them more savage on the playing field.

The Wells report, however, barely acknowledges the role of the Dolphins or the NFL in the matter, even though these organizations appear to have tolerated the locker room’s culture of abuse that is laid bare in the report.

The report concludes:  “As all must surely recognize, the NFL is not an ordinary workplace. Professional football is a rough, contact sport played by men of exceptional size, speed, strength and athleticism. But even the largest, strongest and fleetest person may be driven to despair by bullying, taunting and constant insults. We encourage the creation of new workplace conduct rules and guidelines that will help ensure that players respect each other as professionals and people.”

Martin reportedly did not report the harassment to the NFL because he didn’t want to be a “Judas.”

The report criticizes Dolphins Coach Jim Turner  for discouraging complaints. Although Turner denied it, the report states, “The evidence shows that Turner was aware of the “Judas” concept and that he had discussed its meaning with the linemen, explaining how Judas had betrayed Jesus Christ and defining Judas as a “snitch.”

Organizational Goal?

Many employers  engage in or tolerate strategic bullying to accomplish an organizational goal. For example, some unscrupulous employers seek to downsize without paying unemployment compensation or other benefits.

Surveys show that one in every three or four workers in the United States are bullied and harassed, and many suffer potentially serious emotional and physical damage. Unlike many other industrialized countries, no law exists in the United States requiring employers to insure their workplace is free from what some have called “emotional terrorism.”

Victims of workplace bullying often have little  resource.

Press attention may compel the Dolphins  to discipline Martin’s antagonists on the basis of a general  company anti-harassment policy. Many employers do not make that choice, leaving  victims vulnerable to emotional trauma until they quit like Martin or are fired.

This blog advocates  a national response to workplace bullying that permits any victim of a hostile workplace environment to seek the protections  now available only to protected classes (ie. race, sex) under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Bullying in the NFL Workplace

Even Football Players Hurt When Bullied

It may seem rather silly that a participant in a sport that is so brutal that it causes its players to suffer brain damage would throw in the towel because of taunts and insults by teammates.

But the actions of 6’5″, 315-pound Miami Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin, 25,  are a testament to the damage that workplace bullying can inflict upon targets.

Martin walked off the job recently because he could no longer the endure “abusive environment” that he allegedly has suffered during his one-and-a-half seasons with Miami.  The last straw reportedly came on Monday when he sat down to eat lunch with several other players and they stood up and left when he tried to join them

Dolphins guard Richie Incognito, who is allegedly one of the players who has harassed Martin, was suspended this week for conduct detrimental to his team.  He allegedly sent Martin racist and threatening texts and voicemails.

Research shows that workplace bullying can fell even the mightiest in our society.

Workplace abuse  causes targets to suffer potentially severe mental and  physical illness, including mood and sleep disturbances, upset stomach, panic attacks, headaches etc.  Evidence is accumulating to suggest that stress plays an important role in chronic health problems, including cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, and psychological disorders. Bullying targets frequently report experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome for years after they leave a job in which they were bullied..

There are many well-publicized cases of suicide that are related to workplace bullying, including the recent suicide of the Chief Financial Officer Pierre Wauthier, 53, of the multi-national insurance company, Zurich Insurance Group in Switzerland. He left a note blaming his new boss, who a day after Wauthier’s suicide resigned.

Miami Dolphins Coach Joe Philbin said the NFL is going to conduct a comprehensive and objective review of the workplace environment  and the Dolphins will fully cooperate as an organization.

Individuals who are  experiencing workplace bullying are encouraged to read my book, Transcend Your Boss: Zen and the Difficult Workplace, to gain some coping strategies.  They are also encouraged to sign a petition demanding that the Obama administration address the problem of workplace bullying in our society.

NFL Settlement Raises Legal Question

What Did the NFL Know?

The National Football League Thursday agreed to pay $765 million over 20 years to settle claims that it hid evidence about the dangers of head trauma suffered by NFL players.

Should that end the matter? Of course not. 

NFL players are employees. 

Under the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970, employers are required to provide their employees with a place of employment that “is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.”

 Courts have interpreted OSHA’s general duty clause to mean that an employer has a legal obligation to provide a workplace free of conditions or activities that either the employer or industry recognizes as hazardous and that cause, or are likely to cause, death or serious physical harm to employees when there is a feasible method to abate the hazard.

 The NFL owners had a legal duty to protect the players when they became aware (or should have become aware) of the devastating brain damage being suffered by their players on the field. At that point, the NFL and NFL team owners should have acted to “abate the hazard.”  Professional football is entertainment and there are many feasible ways the NFL could have made the game safer.   

As a result of the settlement, the NFL may be able to avoid the legal discovery process which would have included the deposition of  league officials and doctors about what they knew and when they knew it.  The settlement, however, does not prevent federal authorities from looking into whether  the NFL recognized the risks and still subjected players to serious physical harm. 

To allow the NFL to bury this matter under a rug through a private legal settlement would be akin to the federal government ignoring coal mine owners in West Virginia who failed to properly tunnel or vent a coal mine that caved in and resulted in  catastrophic loss of life. 

 Workplace Fatalities

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) reported last week that  4,383 workers died from work-related injuries in 2012 – that’s  3.2 workers  per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers. In a recent press release. DOL Secretary Thomas Perez said: “No worker should lose their life for a paycheck.”

The DOL’s list of  workplace fatality statistics probably didn’t include Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher who fatally shot his girlfriend last December and then drove to Arrowhead Stadium and committed suicide in front of his coach and general manager. Or Junior Seau, a retired linebacker for the New England Patriots who fatally shot himself in the chest in at his California home last May.

 The deaths of Belcher and Seau were the latest to raise an alarm about head trauma suffered by  players on the football field. A  2012 study by Boston University School of Medicine of 35 former football players (33 had played for the NFL) found that 34 showed signs of brain disease before their deaths.  Dozens of athletes donated their brains to be studied by the medical school, which found a link between head injuries suffered in the heavy-impact sport and degenerative brain disease.

Dealing with High Conflict People

Bill Eddy, on his informative blog, Mediate.com, which is geared toward professional mediators, says High Conflict People (HCP) often act as a result of a life-long mistaken assessment of danger.  He gives the following sage advice for dealing with HCP:

1) Reduce their Mistaken Assessment of Danger:  Try not to be emotionally threatening.  Make an effort to reduce those fears by the way you interact with the person.

  • With a Borderline HCP, try to maintain a moderate, even-tempered manner that’s not too close and not too rejecting (avoid abandonment).
  • With a Narcissistic HCP, try to avoid insults and instead find things you can respect about the person (avoid treating them as inferior).
  • With an Antisocial HCP, be cautious about believing their many stories of being victimized by others, but avoid trying to dominate them in verbal interactions.
  • With Histrionic HCPs, try to pay brief attention to their dramatic stories, and then gently focus on a task or a topic you can be interested in, and then end the conversation by explaining you have to leave (rather than seeming to belittle them).
  • With Paranoid HCPs, don’t try to convince them of your trustworthiness – just be matter-of-fact and focus on what the rules are and why you have to follow them (avoid seeming suspicious of the person and avoid focusing on their fears).

2) Set Limits on Behavior that’s Aggressively Defensive:

Of course, bad behavior needs to be stopped. But the most effective way to do this is to show empathy and concern for the person … AND explain the rules or reasons the specific behavior needs to be stopped (try not to make it personal) AND what the consequences are if it continues. You can express regret that you have to address this behavior, but at the same time explain how you want to help the person and how other behaviors will be more effective at getting them what they want.

The key here is that you want to help the person accomplish the goal (being respected, not being ignored, etc.) that was underlying the bad behavior. You want to help them address the underlying concern. For example, if an employee sent out a nasty email to others in the department, you discuss the consequence for doing that. But also discuss what the employee was trying to accomplish and a better way to do that. It may be that the employee felt disrespected and therefore reacted with disrespect for others. You can explain that a better way would be to simply point out available ways to be treated with respect that don’t involved treating others with disrespect.

3) Avoid Giving Negative Feedback:

It is automatic for us to respond with negative feedback to bad behavior. With the ordinary co-worker, neighbor, or family member, negative feedback may be helpful or at least neutral. However, with HCPs, negative feedback is taken extremely personally and feeds their Mistaken Assessment of Danger – which triggers their bad behavior in an effort to defend themselves against the “danger” – which is more about personality-based fears than it is about anything in the present. Of course, you can’t point this out to the person or you will get even more bad behavior in their defensive response. Instead, focus on reducing emotional threats and on matter-of-factly setting limits on the behavior. Regardless of how severe the consequences may be for the “bad” behavior, communicate that you want to help the person. If you can demonstrate a desire to help through your own attitude and behavior, it often makes a huge, positive difference to an HCP.

(November 2010)