Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few weeks — or living in an alternate universe where cable TV and social media don’t exist — you know about the latest black eye on the face of the NFL, the nation’s most successful sports league. In late October, Jonathan Martin, offensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins, left the organization without notice.
There was no family emergency, and no drug arrest. No explanation at all. Something was obviously wrong. But because nothing remains a mystery for too long in today’s world, we quickly learned why Martin went AWOL. The Ivy League-educated athlete said he endured “harassment that went far beyond the traditional locker room hazing,” according to his lawyer.
And it only got uglier from there.
In the firestorm that followed, details started to emerge in the form of text messages and voicemails that painted the picture of a hostile environment, where a player with a misconduct sheet a mile long bullied and harassed another player relentlessly. And although several current and former players have come forward to defend accused bully Richie Incognito, the perception among many seems to be that where there’s smoke — especially smoke coming from a repeat offender — there’s fire.
To its credit, the Dolphins organization took swift action. Incognito (and yes, that is his real name) was suspended soon after allegations of inappropriate behavior surfaced. But the team’s ownership seems to have taken a vow of silence.
According to various news outlets, the timeline has gone something like this:
- Oct. 28: Jonathan Martin leaves the team without notice.
- Nov. 2: The Dolphins notify the NFL about alleged player misconduct, releasing the transcript of a voicemail that included threats and racial slurs.
- Nov. 2: Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin suspends Richie Incognito for conduct detrimental to the team.
- Nov. 4: Philbin speaks to the media, promising to “take whatever measures necessary” to make sure he provides a safe atmosphere for his players.
- Nov. 11: Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross holds a press conference to address the matter.
That’s not a typo. The team’s owner — the face of the organization — waited two weeks to acknowledge the situation. While his players and staff faced question after question about the ugly allegations, he was in hiding. And what’s even worse, Ross has yet to meet with Martin — the guy who walked away from a $5 million contract because of a seemingly toxic environment.
Interesting strategy. According to Ross, he didn’t speak sooner because he didn’t want to “rush to judgment before all the facts are known.” I can certainly respect wanting to avoid a knee-jerk reaction, but I can’t respect not saying anything at all. As owner of the team, it’s your obligation to address the public (especially the fans that pay good money to watch your team play) when something this serious breaks.
In a situation like that, silence is deadly.
There’s a way to acknowledge a problem without getting into all the details. If Ross isn’t familiar with this, he might want to speak with crisis management expert Steve Bennett, who suggests issuing a statement right away, even if it’s just a brief sentence or two. The people who work for and support his organization deserved at least that much.
And if he truly had no idea what was happening with his players, that’s on him. As the team’s leader, it’s his job to have the pulse of the organization — the people, the culture, and everything that comes with it. No one can be expected to control the actions of everyone on the team. But you can — and you must — react swiftly and appropriately when a serious issue arises. And you must show your face.
As this sad story continues to unfold, it’s my hope that the Dolphins organization takes whatever steps are needed to fix its broken culture. And clearly, it needs to start at the top.