Trauma on the field and bullying in the locker room

Submitted by Jerry Halberstadt on Tue, 11/05/2013 - 23:19

Frontline has charged that the NFL has been deliberately blind to the crippling effects of concussion, and both The Blaze and The New York times report that the NFL and Miami Dolphins have accepted bullying as a common, spirit-building activity of the locker room culture. The human brain can be damaged by two kinds of trauma—a blow that causes concussion, or by bullying that causes psychological trauma, sometimes as severe as PTSD.

A recent Frontline documentary, League of Denial, reports that the NFL denied a link among football, concussions, and long-term brain injury, but nevertheless paid compensation to many injured players.

Clinicians and researchers have demonstrated that psychological abuse such as bullying and mobbing can damage and "rewire" the brain, causing stress, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Reports indicate that bullying of Miami Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin by his teammates, especially by Richie Incognito, led to Martin leaving the team and seeking medical help.

The pattern of the bullying is similar to that seen in schools, the workplace, and subsidized residences. Reports in The Blaze by Jason Howerton indicate that Incognito bullied Martin, using racial slurs, threats, and cyberbullying.

The final straw for Martin came when his teammates left when he sat to join them for a meal. This is a form of social bullying, where a group uses social pressure to demean and humiliate a target.

These practices are commonly accepted as NFL locker-room culture—the coaches and managers have long condoned this pattern. When the head coach, Joe Philbin, as reported by John Branch and Ken Belson in the NYT, joins in the laughter at the expense of a target, it qualifies as mobbing. Mobbing is a very severe, extreme form of bullying where the management and institution condone or participate in the bullying; and thus the victim often has no recourse. The Dolphins and the NFL need to investigate and correct their culture.

The NFL, it seems, does a much better job providing a supportive, nurturing environment for someone like Richie Incognito than it does for players like Jonathan Martin. Suspending Incognito for his locker-room bullying could stop that cycle. It could also lead to a change in how the NFL deals with people like Incognito, who probably need counseling more than they do coaching, and with victims like Martin.—Emily Bazelon and Josh Levin in Slate

While the full details of the situation at the Miami Dolphins are still to come, I wonder how the NFL/Dolphins culture of bullying and abuse could possibly benefit a team? If individuals are fearful, angry, or depressed as a result of bullying, wouldn't that harm cooperation? Aren't there better ways to build team spirit and cohesion? And if mobbing could drive Martin, a 6-foot-5, 312-pound tackle out of a job, what can it do to an elderly or disabled person? If there are no adequate protections in the football workplace, how much more exposed are children in school or the elderly and disabled in subsidized housing?

Meanwhile, Incognito is suspended and Martin is in seclusion. Their coach, Joe Philbin, says he is determined to make the team a safe place. According to David Yamada, a lawyer concerned with workplace bullying, the Dolphins may be prepared to do the "right thing."

An institution that wants to address bullying should start with the book by Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry Mobbing: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions. New York: Oxford University Press; 2012

The StopBullyingCoalition program

Towards a program to stop bullying and mobbing Part 1

Towards a program to stop bullying and mobbing Part 2

Towards a program to stop bullying and mobbing Part 3

Comprehensive program