Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Management Cannot Be Incognito When Employees Act Unprofessionally

For most of the last 40 years, the Miami Dolphins served as the southern flagship of the National Football League. Captained by Don Shula, steered by greats such as Larry Csonka and Dan Marino, the organization exuded class and success.

Those days are well past this franchise.  Now the private world of its locker room over the last several years is laid bare.  All the dysfunction and bizarre behavior exposed.

The initial string on the unraveled sweater comes from former offensive line starter Jonathan Martin.  He complained of a difficult working environment full of taunts, harassment, and bullying.  Some of it came his way, much of it was back and forth between others.  Martin left the team abruptly, then claimed harassment at the hands of teammate and fellow starting lineman Richie Incognito.

But the story didn't add up.  Teammates generally supported Incognito, even after the team released him. Incognito released hundreds of texts sent between the two men.  As a whole, they paint a picture of two guys whose talk about women and life in general sound like sailors on perpetual leave more than bullying.  

Martin also revealed that he suffered from severe depression and had been hospitalized in a mental institution. Incognito was one of the teammates texting to support Martin.  Hardly the stuff of bullying.

The problem with the coverage of this story is that the media takes Martin's word at face value.  Anyone suffering from clinical depression and bipolar disorder does not see the world as it is.  They have a skewed perspective of the people around them and can see slights and offenses where none were taken. Much like Montressor dwelling on the "thousand injuries" of the good time Charlie Fortunato, Martin likely saw himself as a target when he was not.

Proof of this lies in Martin's actual position.  Incognito did not bestride his narrow world as a Colossus.  These men are about the same size.  Both started on the offensive line.  Incognito had no real power or leverage over Martin.  Martin did not recognize that he is master of his own fate.  It was not in his stars, but the mental illness that gripped him that made him feel like an underling.  

That is not to say that bullying did not happen in that locker room or that Incognito was a pure saint.  He is guilty of taking part in taunting and pranking that did, in retrospect, perhaps hold the team back from developing.

Some responsibility lies on the shoulders of Martin.  Some lies on Incognito and other players who took part.

But most lies squarely on the organization.  Organizational culture must be established at the top.  That comes from clear expectations of professionalism by everyone from the owner down to the popcorn seller.  This doesn't mean that players have to act like they are in a golly gee whiz 1950s movie, or like automatons. But they have to understand that they represent an organization and a team mission.  That they are expected to conduct themselves in the locker room and on the field as if the whole world were always watching.  Which, increasingly, it is.

Some jobs will never be Oprahfied, turned into bastions of caring sensitivity.  The National Football League will have little problem accepting openly gay players, but it will always be relentless on those lacking mental toughness.  Martin had problems that likely would keep him from succeeding anywhere in the NFL. The constant competition, scrutiny, and pressure fold, spindle, and mutilate some people.  And he is far from the only one who could not handle the rigors of NFL life.   Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart had every physical gift to make him a starting quarterback, but could not handle the pressure when losses piled up.  He was a great athlete and a good person, but lacked the mentality necessary to remain in his job.

Some will argue that it's just a game.  But it is also a product that earns millions for participants and billions for teams.  Fair or not, pressure comes with the position.

Organizations like the Steelers, Patriots, and others expect professionalism and subordinate everything to winning.  The Steelers' ownership quickly ships out those who undermine the locker room.  Bill Belichick expects a disciplined team.  His coaches even call out quarterback Tom Brady when they feel he has abused his receivers too much.

Incognito will play next year.  Martin likely will not.  Incognito's problems do not stem from the fact, as many in the media have claimed, that he is a "meathead."  His manner of expression and his behavior are not those of a particularly smart guy, but no one lasts long in the NFL without some smarts.  The best of all possible worlds for him is a team like the Steelers.  They need line help desperately, but are a strong enough organization to dampen any negative buzz around his acquisition.  He would likely thrive in an organization with a disciplined and winning mindset.

Plus, after the pat year, once with another team Incognito will behave like a sinner in the hands of an angry God.  Remorseful or not, he has one chance left in him and he knows it.  The whole world is watching and he is now aware.

For Martin to play again, he would have to prove that he has healed and matured.  One can easily prove recovery from a knee injury.  Scars from mental issues are more problematic.  

As for the Dolphins, they are in the same boat as anyone else whose deepest dysfunction just went public. Organizational chaos bred many of the problems they face right now, including chronic losing.

Incognito and Martin only revealed the deeper issues.  An executive left the team months ago, claiming he had been shoved out.  The head trainer, a coach and players relentlessly harassed an assistant trainer, implying he was homosexual.  A lot has to change in the organization, not just a Band Aid, but a cultural overhaul.  

The Dolphins took years to reach this stage.  Turning around will not happen overnight.  But for them to earn respect again, the Dolphins must take the first step on a tough journey.

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