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Jobs on Line, Lawsuits Possible Amid NFL Probe of Dolphins

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USA TODAY
November 15, 2013 Friday
FINAL EDITION
SPORTS; Pg. 1C
2151 words
Stakes are high in bullying case;
Jobs on line, lawsuits possible amid NFL probe of Dolphins
Tom Pelissero, @TomPelissero, USA TODAY Sports

Former NFL wide receiver Greg Camarillo was on the Miami Dolphins roster in March 2010 when the team signed guard Richie Incognito, whose bad reputation dating to college preceded him.

But the actions that led to that reputation -- fights, suspensions, an assault arrest, head-butts, taunting of fans, charges of spitting on opponents, anger-management treatment and dismissals from two colleges and his first NFL team -- weren't necessarily a problem for Incognito's new teammates.

"There's a thin line between having a guy that has a reputation for doing too much and then having a guy that has a reputation for being aggressive and wild on the field in a good way," Camarillo, a seven-year veteran who retired after last season, told USA TODAY Sports.

"You want those guys that are borderline crazy on the field. It's just hard to find that one where he doesn't also do it off the field. It takes a unique human being to go out there on the field for three, four hours and basically beat up on somebody across from you and then just completely turn it off."

Today in New York, Ted Wells -- a noted criminal attorney hired by the NFL to direct what it calls an independent investigation into workplace conduct at Dolphins headquarters -- is scheduled to conduct an interview that could alter that dynamic of NFL culture forever.

Wells will meet with Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin, who has not spoken publicly since his Oct.28 departure from the team after a cafeteria prank triggered the investigation, Incognito's suspension for detrimental conduct and a national discussion about workplace bullying.

Jobs and a lot of money are at stake for many involved, from Incognito and Martin to coach Joe Philbin and his assistants, general manager Jeff Ireland and other team staffers. Litigation could be costly for owner Stephen Ross, who asked NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for help.

And the NFL, under more scrutiny than ever about player safety and a season removed from suspensions in the New Orleans Saints bounty case, could make an example of Incognito just as it did Sean Payton, Gregg Williams and Jonathan Vilma.

A conflict between two players has morphed into a public trial of the macho mind-set that facilitated it. The resolution might be more complicated than imposing a hard-line hazing ban, which could have unintended consequences.

"The NFL would be making a big mistake if they went from zero awareness to zero tolerance," said Gary Namie, a social psychologist and director of the Workplace Bullying Institute.

"You've got to bring the cultures along. They've built themselves up over time. You have to draw a line in the sand with a very high threshold at the abuse level -- when the targeted person stops laughing with and becomes the person laughed at and has the stress from the humiliation."

Working the locker room

When did Martin stop laughing? Or was he ever laughing in the first place?

The 24-year-old who played at Stanford no doubt will face those questions from Wells, whose goals today likely will include gathering as much forensic evidence (text messages, voice mails, etc.) as possible, drilling down facts and establishing a timeline for the alleged abuse.

"He'll say to Martin: 'What's the closest date you can think of when this started?'" said Adam W. Hansen, a lawyer at the employment and consumer litigation firm Nichols Kaster. "'Walk me through what he said. Walk me through what you said. Walk me through all the conversations so we can paint the total picture of what happened here.' (Wells will) take that evidence and try to evaluate it holistically, rather than piece by piece. That's really the key."

There is no federal law barring workplace harassment, though a voice mail Incognito left Martin -- in which Incognito used a racial epithet and said, "I'll kill you" -- could form the basis for a lawsuit for illegal discrimination, Hansen said.

An NFL locker room is an unusual workplace in part because it's subject to the collective bargaining agreement, which has its own set of rules. But federal laws still apply.

Martin's attorney, David Cornwell, issued a statement last week saying his client endured harassment that went far beyond the traditional locker room hazing and included an alleged quote from a teammate describing a sex act with his sister.

In an interview with Fox Sports that aired Sunday, Incognito presented part of his defense: that he had text messages from Martin that included similar remarks, which Incognito has painted as frat-house humor the two used commonly to communicate.

"My actions were coming from a place of love," Incognito said in the interview. "No matter how bad and how vulgar it sounds, that's how we communicate, that's how our friendship was, and those are the facts and that's what I'm accountable for."

The Dolphins franchise could be held accountable not only for what it knew about illegal discrimination but also what it should have known, according to Silvana Raso, managing partner at Schepisi & McLaughlin, which handles school and workplace bullying cases.

Philbin has said publicly the team was unaware of the alleged abuse until Nov. 3, when Martin's representatives turned over evidence that led to Incognito's suspension that night.

"The question becomes, was the culture such that this was expected and normal and everybody knew that this was going on, even if they didn't know the specifics of who was engaging in it?" Raso said. "If this was an atmosphere that was tolerated in the past, then they'd still be liable, even if it wasn't reported."

Code of silence

Maybe some players suspected Incognito was crossing the line. But it's no surprise that no one turned him in, given locker room code and how common hazing has been in the league for years.

"You'd get berated. You'd get teased," former NFL safety Darren Sharper said. "I've had my clothes thrown in the cold tub and the sauna. I've been on a plane and refused to get the veterans food before an away trip; that was the longest ride of my life."

Some coaches who frown upon shaving rookies' heads or taping them to goal posts remain OK with them carrying veterans' pads or being in a talent show, like the one that HBO's Hard Knocks showed the Dolphins putting on during training camp in 2012.

The idea is to bring players closer together, though some players might feel the opposite. Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said he had a zero-tolerance policy, explaining, "I always felt like there was something demeaning in there that was a distraction."

Legendary coach Bill Walsh had a similar policy with the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s, said Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice, who acknowledged a harsh reality: No matter what comes of the investigation, Martin almost surely can't return to the Dolphins locker room.

"I think he's going to play football again, but it's probably not going to be with the Miami Dolphins," Rice told USA TODAY Sports. "And hopefully Richie Incognito also realizes that you just can't treat people that way. Some of the things that he said, even in that voice mail, there was a lot of anger in that, and a lot of people, a lot of teams, will hold that against him."

Yet Dolphins players have come to Incognito's defense far more than Martin's, despite the news media firestorm and reminders from the team about its policies on harassment.

"We talk about it, but we're all grown men," linebacker Dannell Ellerbe said. "We all know what to expect around these times. You've just got to be respectful to each other. It's an NFL locker room. We laugh and joke all the time. I guess you've just got to watch what you say now."

In light of the Dolphins situation, the NBA sent a memo to teams last week about its existing policy banning all forms of hazing and bullying. Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said Thursday that hazing was not an issue in his sport and he was proud of players for being respectful -- but he didn't address the annual tradition of dressing up rookies in costumes for a road trip.

Other leagues figure to follow suit. College programs have had to address hazing among athletes and alleged abuse by coaches. Namie made a presentation on bullying at West Point the day the U.S. military rolled out its anti-hazing commitment, which he said focuses on "destructive hazing. People get killed in hazing. But you're not going to get killed having your head shaved."

Still, the line on abuse is crossed when a victim's health is affected, Namie said -- and the mental can become physical, progressing from debilitating anxiety to depression to traumatization if there is exposure over a long enough period.

Martin, who is under contract through 2015, has continued to get paid his weekly salary of $35,733 while undergoing treatment in California. Incognito, whose contract expires in March, could miss four games and lose five game checks totaling $1,176,470 before the team must reinstate or cut him. He filed a grievance Thursday requesting an expedited hearing.

Busting bullying

In 1998, defensive tackle Jeff Danish sued the Saints for $650,000 after he put his hand through a dorm window during a hazing ritual and needed 14 stitches. Teammate Cam Cleeland suffered blurred vision when teammate Andre Royal hit him in the eye with a sock full of coins.

Danish agreed to a settlement with the Saints. He also sued Royal, who was traded to the Indianapolis Colts after the incident. Goodell's predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, didn't take disciplinary action but said NFL teams should place "greater emphasis on programs and policies to avoid incidents of this nature, which are disruptive, potentially dangerous and unacceptable."

Fifteen years later, the Martin case could be to hazing what the Saints scandal was to bounties, even though Vilma led a semi-successful legal fight that ended with Tagliabue overturning Goodell's suspensions of him and three other players. (Vilma also sued Goodell for defamation, but that lawsuit was dismissed in January.)

Wells' investigation was met by skepticism from the NFL Players Association, whose assistant executive director of external affairs, George Atallah, told USA TODAY Sports, "It is difficult to call an investigator independent if he is hired by one of the involved parties."

But Wells has experience navigating sports issues fraught with conflicts of interest. In January, his 469-page report on leadership and business practices of the National Basketball Players Association led to executive director Billy Hunter's ouster while also pointing out mistakes made by union President Derek Fisher, who pushed for the investigation.

At minimum, the Dolphins investigation figures to lend teeth to team and league policies on workplace harassment -- a critical element, according to Martin's mother, attorney Jane Howard-Martin, who wrote in an op-ed for USA TODAY in 2002, "A policy against harassment is not valuable unless employees believe it will be enforced."

Such a promise could be enough to placate a workplace bullying victim, according to John Schepisi, a managing partner at Schepisi & McLaughlin. In Martin's case, he'd look like a hero to all rookies, Schepisi said, "And maybe it goes away without anyone having to pay anyone."

Today's meeting is one important step in an investigation that could take weeks. Wells figures to interview Philbin, Ireland and other staffers who could be asked to turn over forensic evidence, depending on the authority afforded by the NFL. Ross, whose Wednesday meeting with Martin was scrapped at the league's request, could be questioned, too.

Effecting change

That, above all else, figures to motivate whatever changes the Dolphins or the NFL make to ensure they don't end up in this position again. Ross said Monday that he was in the process of setting up a task force to improve the culture in the locker room.

Namie, a Seahawks fan, knows it sounds strange coming from him, but he cautions against tinkering too much with mostly harmless rituals that actually can build team unity.

"All that's going to do is foster all kinds of resentment," Namie said. "Then coaches will be compliance officers, and it takes them away from what they should be doing. Let most of the other stuff go so that, over time, the culture changes."

The Dolphins also have a season to worry about. They've lost five of six entering Sunday's home game against the San Diego Chargers and spent another week answering questions that Camarillo said can stick with players a long time.

"We poke fun at each other. We make fun of people," said Camarillo, who is in graduate school for educational leadership.

"It's kind of understood that you don't talk about people's wives, you don't talk about people's sisters or family members.

"Obviously, you can't take it to the point where someone's going to want to quit their job or want to fight you. There's an unspoken line that can't be crossed."

Contributing: Rachel Axon in Tampa.

November 15, 2013

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