Anyone can be bullied, even a National Football League player. That's the message that hopefully emerges from the ongoing controversy surrounding Miami Dolphins teammates Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito.
To review, Martin recently left the team, accusing his teammates of what amounted to bullying and hazing. Since then, incident after incident has trickled out regarding Martin's treatment at the hands of Incognito, who allegedly harassed Martin with racial slurs and death threats, leaving him profanity -laced voicemails. Incognito also allegedly forced Martin to pay $15,000 for some of his teammates to decamp to Las Vegas, a trip Martin himself did not take.
And it gets worse. According to the Orlando Sun Sentinel, Miami's coaches wanted Incognito to "toughen up" Martin, implicitly sanctioning the bad behavior. They now claim they didn't realize the toughening had gotten so out of hand, and Incognito has been suspended for "conduct detrimental to the team."
The incident has rightly produced a host of denunciations of the NFL's hazing culture and the influence it may have had in prompting Incognito to act as he did. "I think the NFL – in the same way it banned all bounties after the New Orleans Saints' scandal – must think about banning anything that reeks of hazing. Just because this tradition has been handed down doesn't make it smart, or right," wrote Sports Illustrated's Peter King.
But the Dolphins case has also provided a stark reminder that bullying is not something isolated to the playground or a middle school cafeteria. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, some 35 percent of Americans have experienced bullying on the job, with another 15 percent reporting that they witnessed others being bullied. The majority of that bullying is same-gender harassment, the Institute found, "which is mostly legal according to anti-discrimination laws and workplace policies." A 2006 study, meanwhile, found that 15 million workers report experiencing "psychological aggression" on a weekly basis.
The effects of this treatment can be profound for its victims, ranging from the physical to the financial, if the target of the bullying ultimately winds up being run out of his job. (Not surprisingly, workplace bullying is also bad for business.)
Making matters worse, according to research from the University of Buffalo School of Management, workplace bullies usually get away with it, receiving positive evaluations and climbing the career ladder. As the Wall Street Journal's Rachel Emma Silverman reported, "The researchers found that many bullies thrive by charming their supervisors and manipulating others to help them get ahead, even while they abuse their co-workers." There is currently no U.S. law against workplace bullying, though several states have individually tried to move legislation to deal with it.
So while the case of Martin and Incognito – and whoever else on the Dolphins roster or staff may have known what was going on – may look like just another instance of NFL players behaving badly, it is actually a high-profile and extreme example of the sort of treatment that happens to millions of workers all across the country every day. And there's no place for it in the boardroom, the break room, the newsroom or the locker room.