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Bullying in the NFL: It’s a Leadership Issue

You may have heard the story on the news over the weekend. Jonathan Martin, of the Miami Dolphins, just quit the team. It wasn’t because he wasn’t good enough to play professional football. It was due to….well, uh…bullying from teammates.

Miami Dolphins Bullying

Are you kidding me? Are these guys adults or middle school boys?

It’s hard to tell sometimes. Young Dolphins players are put under pressure to dig deep into their pockets to pay for veteran’s lavish social outings, a reality that has put a strain on their finances as well as team chemistry. One source reported that a young defensive player (whose privacy the Miami Herald is protecting) is on his way to going broke due to the bullying of older players on the team. He’s unable to say “No” to those veterans. As I dug into the facts, I discovered it’s very common for teams to ask rookies to pay for one meal together.  But in Miami, it’s gone far beyond that one-time tradition.

The chief culprit? Veteran player Richie Incognito, who’s put pressure on these young players as if it was a fraternity hazing joke gone bad. The attack’s been both financial and emotional on the young players—to the point that some want to quit. Martin, who has quit, was manipulated by Incognito to pay for a $15,000 trip to Las Vegas veterans took, that Martin didn’t even go on.

May I comment?

This is absurd. I am embarrassed for the young players, who will have to say they quit the NFL because they were bullied. At the same time, I am ashamed of the vets who do this; these are their teammates, not their opponents. What kind of culture exists on this team anyway?

More than anything, I am shocked at the pitiful leadership exhibited by the Dolphin franchise. They can hide behind all kinds of excuses—but this is a leadership issue. This is hating not hazing. And it didn’t happen incognito, if you’ll pardon the pun. I love what former Coach Mike Ditka said about it all: “This would have never happened back in the 1960s with Vince Lombardi, or in the 1970s with Tom Landy or even in my day, in the 1980s in Chicago.”  Why? Because coaches and managers knew the job of the leader is to build a culture on the team, not surrender it to immature players who are evidently still growing up.

I recognize boys will be boys and a certain amount of “hazing” is normal on a sports team. But this guy was scared of his teammates. It serves as a simple reminder of a simple truth every leaders must understand:

The number one job of a leader is to cultivate a healthy, productive culture.

I don’t care how many games the Dolphins win, that’s what is on my scorecard.

HabitudesForAthletesWant to prepare athletes for excellence in sports and life? Check out Habitudes for Athletes.




photo credit: Photography MC via photopin cc


  1. Angie on November 5, 2013 at 7:58 am

    An NFL player is brave enough to stand up and tell about the dysfunctional bullying going on behind closed doors, and you are “embarrassed for [him]”? Wow. Disappointed in this comment – and illustrates why problems like this continue.

    • karen heard on November 5, 2013 at 10:27 am

      You are sick if you think that bullying is okay ANYWHERE – whether in the NFL or not. Size does not matter when it comes to bullying. You must be a bully yourself if you think it is okay.

      • Angie on November 5, 2013 at 4:23 pm

        I’m sorry, but what??? Where in my comment did you read that I think bullying is okay. I was referring to the fact that Tim Elmore stated he was “embarrassed for” the individual who is a victim in this case. The shame & embarrassment rightly belongs to the person who is doing the bullying – THEY are the ones whose actions are shameful. Please reread what I actually wrote.

        I’m reading Mr. Elmore’s comments below, and believe that he didn’t mean any harm. But I remain uncomfortable about using the words “embarrassed for” a bullying victim. That kind of language continues the idea that the victim did something wrong that is worthy of embarrassment. It’s a small point, but words matter and this was poor word choice.

    • Tim Elmore on November 5, 2013 at 3:41 pm

      Thanks for weighing in. I must have not communicated clearly enough for you. My embarrassment is not that Jonathan Martin stood up to the bullying. I don’t think I said that. In fact, my understanding is that he in fact did not. He left. He was gone. AWOL for two days before management knew what happened. I think all parties could have handled this better.

  2. Daniel R. on November 11, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    This is a very interesting post. I agree with your embarrassment for the NFL player who quit because he was bullied. However, what viable leadership actions would you you suggest for that player to take in order for him to rise above all this immaturity?

    • Tim Elmore on November 15, 2013 at 2:44 pm

      Without knowing all the specifics of the situation, I would suggest addressing the situation head on:
      Don’t react immediately
      Go to the bully privately
      Seek help from higher authority if necessary

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Bullying in the NFL: It’s a Leadership Issue