Recent NFL scandal: Rookie hazing or serious workplace harassment?

Posted in Sexual Harassment on November 25, 2013

If you’re a football fan (as many Californians are), you have probably heard about the allegations of teammate harassment going on within the Miami Dolphins franchise. Offensive lineman Jonathan Martin left the team a few weeks ago because teammate Richie Incognito was allegedly engaging in harassment.

Incognito and others have claimed that the incidents were nothing more than rookie hazing, but many outside observers have said that Incognito’s behavior is a clear example of workplace harassment, including racial harassment. As it turns out, Martin’s mother Jane Howard-Martin practiced as an employment law attorney for decades, so it’s likely that her son has a pretty good idea about his workplace rights. USA Today recently republished a 2002 article written by Howard-Martin on how employers can prevent harassment lawsuits, including those for sexual harassment.

In her article, Howard-Martin says that a good anti-harassment policy requires a three-step approach; each with its own specific set of guidelines. In short, the three steps include:

  1. Drafting an anti-harassment policy
  2. Setting up an internal structure within the company to implement and oversee a program of harassment prevention
  3. Making sure that all employees are aware of and trained on the company’s policy

Although the article was written 11 years ago for a non-specific audience, the advice given seems to perfectly describe some of the problems the National Football League is having with the Incognito harassment allegations. 

For instance, Howard-Martin’s article notes that companies need to make clear that they have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to harassment. Companies also need to make workers aware that they can report harassment complaints and that the company will investigate and take corrective action as necessary. 

The NFL seems to have failed in at least a couple of these areas. According to a recent ABC News article, Incognito may have been told by coaches to “toughen up” Martin. If true, this would mean that team officials not only knew about the harassment, but actually encouraged it. 

Many defenders of Incognito’s actions have argued that “things are just different in the locker room” or that “there’s nothing wrong with a little hazing.” But based on evidence of Incognito’s actions, it would be hard for any reasonable person to classify his actions as anything other than aggressive harassment. Hopefully, the NFL will do the right thing and make sure that this type of behavior is not allowed to continue in any locker room or among any players. 

Source: USA Today, “Stop workplace harassment in your company,” Jane Howard-Martin, Nov. 12, 2013