on football

In Dolphins mess, blame can go to many corners

The verbal abuse, or “bullying,” as Jonathan Martin’s camp labeled it, is only one of several reasons why Martin left the Dolphins.
The verbal abuse, or “bullying,” as Jonathan Martin’s camp labeled it, is only one of several reasons why Martin left the Dolphins.

The Martin-Incognito mess in Miami, it turns out, comes down to a matter of percentages.

How much do we blame Jonathan Martin’s sudden departure from the Dolphins in late October to the abhorrent verbal abuse laid on him by ringleader Richie Incognito and his vile wingmen, Mike Pouncey and John Jerry?

How much do we blame Martin’s own insecurities, drug/alcohol dependence, and mental health issues for his condition? How do we weigh the toll that his poor play in his 1½ years in the NFL had on his mental condition? And how much do we blame the Dolphins’ coaches and the culture in the locker room for letting this fester?


Because make no mistake about it, all of these factors, and possibly more, contributed to Martin abruptly leaving the team, checking into a hospital for psychological treatment, sitting out the second half of the NFL season, and getting Incognito suspended for his behavior. It says so as much in the highly detailed Wells Report, released Friday and read in full by myself Tuesday.

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The media coverage of the report — in which famed attorney Ted Wells, as commissioned by the NFL and the Dolphins, interviewed more than 100 people connected with the team and people involved to get to the bottom of this mess — predictably has focused on the shocking details of verbal abuse perpetrated by Incognito and a few offensive linemen against Martin.

Their comments about Martin’s sister and mother are vulgar and cross the line of decency, even by locker room standards. Incognito’s use of the N-word and other racial slang, even what he believes is in jest, is horrific. The culture of taunting in the Dolphins’ locker room — of Martin, of offensive linemen Nate Garner and Andrew McDonald, of assistant trainer Naohisa Inoue, and of young players in general — grew way out of hand in 2013. That’s what happens when you discard your four veteran leaders from the previous year, your quarterback is in his second season and still trying to prove himself, and Incognito is the only veteran left to serve as the leader.

But the verbal abuse, or “bullying,” as Martin’s camp labeled it, is only one of several reasons why Martin left the team. Wells says as much in his report.

“We are not prepared to reduce these events to a simple or paradigmatic case of bullying,” reads the report. “We are not . . . in a position to evaluate Martin’s assertion that the abusive conduct of his teammates was, in fact, the exclusive triggering cause of his depression and contemplation of suicide.”


It later reads, “We believe that Martin was subjected to persistent verbal abuse, and we expressly find that the abuse contributed to his decision to leave the Dolphins … though it was not necessarily the only cause.”

Contributed. There’s no doubt about it. But how much?

If you’re in Martin’s camp, which has leaked selective voicemails and texts to the media portraying Martin as a helpless victim, you want people to think that 90 percent of Martin’s anguish derived from the verbal abuse from Incognito, Pouncey, and Jerry. If you’re in Incognito’s camp, you argue that 90 percent of Martin’s anguish is due to his own mental issues and anxieties, and from not playing well.

The reality, most likely, is somewhere in the middle.

You feel for Martin for the way he bared his soul to Wells in this investigation, and the mental anguish he’s been through, not only in his two years with the Dolphins, but also in his childhood. After reading the heartbreaking text messages he sent to his parents in which he laments being a pushover and not being able to stand up and fight back to his teammates’ taunts, you just want to give the big offensive tackle a big hug. Martin admitted that he fought depression as a child, contemplated suicide twice in 2013, and his mental demons appear to be very real.


Incognito comes off as a total pig, especially when he continually stressed to Wells that his verbal taunts and racial epithets were all in good fun and didn’t hurt anybody. That’s for Martin to decide, not Incognito.

And offensive line coach Jim Turner, a Braintree native and former coach at Boston College, Harvard, and Northeastern, clearly helped foster this atmosphere. He joined in on the joke that McDonald is gay, giving him a male blow-up sex doll in 2012 after giving female versions to the rest of the offensive line. He told his players not to be a “Judas,” or snitch, when grading missed assignments in film sessions, perhaps contributing to Martin’s fears of speaking out against Incognito. And Turner texted Martin several times after he left the team to “do the right thing” and take the heat off Incognito, even after knowing that Martin was dealing with mental anguish.

At the same time, Martin isn’t blameless in this mess, either. Martin never spoke up to his tormentors, or his bosses, and let the raw emotions build inside of him. The Wells Report concluded that none of the parties involved had any idea how much their taunting affected Martin.

“We strongly believe that if Martin had reported the harassment to a coach or front office executive [or even his agent] the team may have been able to address his issues before it was too late,” Wells wrote.

Martin admitted that he used recreational drugs and alcohol to deal with his problems — he missed an early-morning weightlifting session Oct. 7 because he was too drunk after playing poorly the day before in a 26-23 home loss to the Ravens — and that may have contributed to his mental condition.

And the actions from Martin’s camp, whether it be his agent, attorney, or parents (one of whom happens to be an attorney expert in employment discrimination and workplace issues) were fairly dirty as they fought to protect Martin’s reputation and keep his salary — $1,867,333 in base salary owed to him the next two seasons, and $959,734 in signing bonus installments that he may have had to return for voluntarily leaving the team.

They tried to paint Martin as the victim of racism, but Wells found evidence to that “ambiguous and conflicting,” especially considering that two of the “racial” tormentors were Jerry, who is black, and Pouncey, who is mixed race.

Martin’s camp significantly “exaggerated,” as Wells wrote, the fact that Martin “endured a malicious physical attack” from Incognito at a Christmas party.

Martin’s camp played up the fact that Incognito “coerced” $10,000 from Martin for skipping a trip to Las Vegas with the rest of the offensive line, but Wells found that point embellished. Incognito tried to fine Jerry the same amount for the same infraction, and he less-than-politely declined.

There was also no Code Red from former GM Jeff Ireland or anyone else for Incognito to torment Martin. They told him to help Martin get stronger in the weight room, but didn’t condone the abusive behavior, which Wells found to be credible.

And Wells chastised Martin’s camp, stating that “it would have been preferable for Martin’s grievances to be handled inside the Dolphins organization rather than played out in the national news media.”

So now that the report is complete, where do we go from here?

Martin, a 2012 second-round pick, has stated that he wants to resume his NFL career, and we agree with Wells that “it would be unfortunate if he did not get the chance to resume playing in an environment that will permit him to reach his full potential as a professional athlete.”

But it shouldn’t come in Miami. Even with Incognito and Jerry (both free agents) not expected back, there are too many players inside that building — players and management — who resent Martin for dragging the team through the mud and making them a national punchline for several weeks.

The reality is that Martin won’t have an easy time finding a locker room that will accept him after this ordeal. One team that could be a landing spot is the 49ers, whose coach, Jim Harbaugh, coached Martin at Stanford and spoke highly of him in the Wells Report. Another could be the Colts, where he could reunite with former Stanford QB Andrew Luck and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton.

The Dolphins could try to cut Martin and recoup their money, but this would be a huge mistake as the Wells Report clearly leaves the team exposed to a lawsuit. The Dolphins could try to bring back Martin, but would probably be best off simply cutting him, paying him the balance of his contract, and letting him try to resume his career elsewhere.

Coach Joe Philbin will be safe, as owner Stephen Ross has a significant affection for him, although it seems curious that the man at the top of the organization won’t suffer any consequences from this mess.

Incognito certainly won’t be re-signed by Miami, and could have trouble finding work given his repugnant behavior. He may become more toxic if the league office suspends him for his conduct, although he may avoid punishment given his eight-game suspension at the end of the season (though he still received six game checks). Jerry, a fringe player on the Dolphins, might get picked up elsewhere, and Pouncey may earn a multigame suspension for his behavior.

Turner seems as good as gone, and deserves that fate. The coaches are supposed to be above locker-room shenanigans.

And the NFL will look to foster a culture of acceptance and understanding in the locker room, which will be especially important given that Michael Sam, the first openly gay draft prospect, will be a big national story this summer. At minimum, the hazing and frat-boy behavior will be closely examined, and a code of conduct may be coming to all 32 locker rooms.

You might not think that professional athletes need rules and constant reminders to treat fellow adults with respect. The Martin-Incognito mess proved otherwise.

Ben Volin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.