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The Richie Incognito Case: Workplace Bullying or Just “Locker Room” Culture?

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UPDATE: On February 14, 2014, the NFL’s independent investigator, Ted Wells, released a 144-page report on the allegations of workplace misconduct within the Miami Dolphins that concluded there was a consistent pattern of harassment by Richie Incognito and two additional offensive linemen, Mike Pouncey and John Jerry, of Jonathan Martin and other Dolphins players and personnel.

You can also read Dr. Gary Namie’s (Director, Workplace Bullying Institute) blog post on the findings of the report for more information.

By Efua Andoh (APA Public Interest Directorate Communications Staff)

As a 6 foot 5, 300-plus pound lineman on the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins, Jonathan Martin doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype of a bullying victim. But as has now come to light, Jonathan Martin was the target of persistent harassment by Richie Incognito, a fellow lineman with a reputation as one of the dirtiest players in the league. Incognito’s lewd and threatening voicemails, some of which included racial slurs (Martin is African American and Incognito is white) have been made public. Reports have emerged that Dolphins coaches may have explicitly instructed Incognito to “toughen up” Martin and that some Dolphins teammates even participated in the abuse. The apparent straw that broke the camel’s back was Incognito and others standing up and leaving a lunch table as soon as Martin joined them – a schoolyard tactic if there ever was one.  Martin abruptly left the team after that incident and checked into a hospital for treatment of emotional distress.

While the Dolphins initially downplayed Martin’s departure, the team has indefinitely suspended Incognito, and the NFL has launched its own investigation. Yet, Martin’s decision to seek help has met with a mixed reaction. While some players have been sympathetic there has been a collective shrug from a number of others who have dismissed Incognito’s behavior as simply part of the “locker room culture.” Some have said that Martin should have “been a man,” implying he should have responded to aggression with aggression.  Sports Illustrated quoted one anonymous player “I might get my ass kicked, but I’m going to go down swinging if that happens to me, I can tell you that.“

This story raises troubling and complex questions about workplace bullying, jock culture, and American culture overall regarding issues of power disparities, masculinity, and race. It isn’t cut and dried; emerging research shows us that some of the things that many dismiss as simply “locker room” culture are antecedents to workplace bullying.   In fact, bullying targets – and bullies — come in all sizes, ages, and kinds.

We consulted Dr. Gary Namie, Director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, who responded:

The initial employer response was to discount the allegations as ‘hazing,’ as if that connotes an acceptable rite of passage for these grown professionals, and to discredit Jonathan Martin as having an ‘illness’ and stigmatizing ‘emotional issues.’ I learned through my work with the military that even hazing is deemed unacceptable and policies precluding it are on the books. As far as blaming victims, it’s a case of the fundamental attribution error run amok. Professional 300 lb. millionaires do not fit any stereotype of what targets of bullying are supposed to look like. So, he Martin was seen by fellow players and coaches as “soft,” justifying coaches’ instructions to Incognito to ‘toughen up’ Martin. The myth of Martin’s softness was exploded by former Stanford teammates and his attorney.”

1.       Let’s clarify – does Incognito’s behavior meet the definition of workplace bullying?

In their review article of 20 years of workplace bullying research, Samnani and Singh (2012) defined workplace bullying as “harassing, offending, socially excluding someone or negatively affecting someone’s work tasks” and “an escalated process in the course of which the person confronted ends up in an inferior position and becomes the target of systematic negative social acts .” The Workplace Bullying Institute has noted that it often “escalates to involve others who side with the bully, either voluntarily or through coercion.”

It seems clear that Incognito’s verbal and nonverbal behavior toward Martin qualifies as workplace bullying:

  1. it was persistent, systematic and had a negative mental health impact

  2. it created and exacerbated a power disparity between the two, and

  3. it involved other teammates in the abuse.

2.       How does workplace bullying adversely affect the mental health of targeted individuals?

The Workplace Bullying Institute estimates that 37% of the U.S. workforce (an estimated 54 million Americans) report being bullied at work, while an additional 12% bear witness to this behavior. WBI 2003 research found that targeted individuals often suffer debilitating anxiety, panic attacks, clinical depression (39%), and even post-traumatic stress (PTSD, 30% of women; 21% of men). In their review article, Samnani and Singh report a number of serious mental health effects of workplace bullying, including depression and stress, sleep problems and mood swings, and even suicide.  Regarding work-related outcomes, workplace bullying is associated with intent to leave, absenteeism, and obviously, job satisfaction.

3.        Does NFL “locker room” culture contribute to workplace bullying?

American football is to some degree an aggressive and violent sport by nature. However, Incognito’s treatment of Martin illuminates how that aggression was manifested and even encouraged off the field. Incognito and others’ attribution of his behavior (racial slurs included) to the “culture of the locker room” relies on an argument that the hazing of rookies is simply what players sign up for when they join the NFL, and may even be encouraged by management. However, research indicates these “accepted” group norms are likely counterproductive for the entire team.

Samnani and Singh (2012) report research findings that employees tend to be more aggressive when they witness aggressive colleagues and may often take the perpetrator’s side when they witness bullying behaviors for fear of becoming a target themselves. This can be destructive for group norms and cohesion. Group norms that are tolerant or even indirectly encouraging of bullying behaviors may perpetuate or stimulate bullying behaviors within the group. In addition, employees experiencing status inconsistency (i.e., a difference from other members of the group based on a certain characteristic such as age, race, or gender) can become either a perpetrator or target for workplace bullying. Which brings us to the complex role that race played in the interactions between Incognito and Martin and among other members of the team.

A number of African American NFL players defended Incognito against charges of racism despite his use of racial slurs. Incognito was even described as an “honorary” African American by one player.   News reports have included the information that Martin was a Stanford University graduate, from a family with three generations of Harvard graduates.    This suggests another dynamic is possible – that Martin’s more “upper class” background may have rendered him an outsider (despite his being the same race as many of his teammates) and contributed to perceived differences and encouraged aggression.

4.       We asked Dr. Namie what the NFL needs to do to address workplace bullying effectively.

  1. The change must be at the NFL level and not remain buried within the Dolphins organization alone.

  2. Be careful to not move from zero awareness to zero tolerance. The most extreme swing will make compliance officers of all coaches and compel snitching among players. Resentment would ensue. Allow time to learn new ways to interact. Tolerate up to two offenses prior to termination.

  3. Create a policy to draw “the line in the sand.” Unacceptable conduct must be specified. Behavioral standards must exist for comparison’s sake.

  4. Demand that the policy pertain to all employees — owners to rookie players and all coaches in between. Apply the standards consistently. Do not resolve on a “case-by-case” basis that allows for exemptions for favorites.

  5. Before formal complaints can be filed, require that bullied players first consult with a member of an Expert Peers Team trained in the nuances of workplace bullying so that the ambiguous experiences can be clarified, strategies provided and information about the policy and procedures explained safely and confidentially.

  6. Write the policy or code to address only the most severe, health-harming forms of abusive conduct that has absolutely nothing to do with performance (playing the game successfully).

  7. Allow non-humiliating rituals to continue (such as rookies gathering helmets at the end of games … see coach Pete Carroll). Render extinct hazing, intimidation, financial extortion, and other non-physical forms of abuse.

  8. Devise safe, non-retaliatory, non-stigmatizing procedures that enable complaint filing and 3rd party investigations.

  9. Provide healing, restorative justice solutions for affected targets, bullies and witnessing coworkers.

  10. Identify veteran & retired players known for toughness (e.g., Ray Lewis) who can be league ambassadors on the topic.

We want to hear from you. Tell us in the comments:

  1. What do you think?   Is Incognito’s behavior bullying?  Or is that just the NFL?

  2. What are your thoughts on the issues of power, masculinity and race that the Incognito case brings to the forefront?

  3. What steps can all workplaces take to prevent and address workplace bullying?

  4. What responsibilities do all coworkers and managers have to confront and discourage workplace bullying?

  5. What kind of protections would you like to see for individuals targeted by workplace bullies?

Resources on workplace stress and bullying:

APA workplace bullying resource – “Stop Office Bullying

You can also read Dr. Namie’s blog posts on the Incognito bullying case here.


Samnani, A., & Singh, P. (2012). 20 Years of workplace bullying research: A review of the antecedents and consequences of bullying in the workplace. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 17(6), 581–589. doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2012.08.004

Workplace Bullying Institute & Zogby International (2007). U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, September 2007. Retrieved from

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