I hope NFL investigator Ted Wells begins each interview with Dolphins players and coaches with this story for them to finish:
“A kid goes to school. He feels bullied. Most students shrug. No teacher notices. His parents say, ‘Son, if you want it to stop, the first thing you need to do is...’”
Some people answer the kid should punch the bully. Some say a teacher should be told. Some say, at least in the Jonathan Martin firestorm involving the Dolphins, a lawsuit should be filed.
But the right answer is something any 12-year-old kid grasps and a Stanford-educated, 24-year-old man like Martin should know from life experience: You ask for the behavior to stop.
That’s the fundamental first step, right? Martin could have said: Cool it. Back off. That’s enough. I don’t appreciate it. No mas. You’re over the line. This has to end. Do you realize what you’re doing? Let’s talk about this. You might not understand.
Did Martin ever communicate that in 18 months of texts to teammate Richie Incognito that run 1,142 printed pages?
Did he tell any teammate or coach?
That’s the first question from Wells. Coach Joe Philbin said when this chapter began neither Martin nor his family, in person or over the phone, said harassment was a problem.
What if Martin told no one? It doesn’t absolve blame of managing the locker room and team leadership. But it changes the dynamics some. And it says besides coaches and players that Martin contributed to the problem.
We like our characters pre-packaged in America. And even before the facts were known Martin was the pre-packaged victim and Incognito was the pre-packaged villain, the profane, locker-room Neanderthal whose use of the n-word symbolized a lost Dolphins culture.
And maybe that’s how it plays out in the end. Certainly Martin is a victim of something and Incognito is a caveman. Certainly, too, the Dolphins’ coaches didn’t have enough of a handle on the issue to help the players and deal with the story themselves.
That’s why Wells was called in. It’s why the players’ union is sending in an investigator, according to a report. It’s why Dolphins owner Steve Ross assembled his own panel of football experts to help develop a new code of conduct.
That’s trouble in triplicate for a team in the middle of a season. But even as Wells unravels this story this week something else has become clear besides some basic lack of communication: Incognito deserves better from the Dolphins.
Oh, Incognito is guilty of racially-charged language and rough treatment of Martin. But the Dolphins’ latest move in a series of them against Incognito was to ask for a delay in a scheduled grievance hearing over his four-game suspension.
Incognito wants to be told why he was suspended and appeal the idea (as well as recover the more than $1 million in lost wages). Is that too much to ask? The suspension was announced immediately after the profane voice mail from Incognito to Martin became public. The idea was this issue was enough to suspend him.
But a source said the suspension and the pending decision not to have Incognito return to the team wasn’t simply because of the Martin saga.
“It’s like when Chad Johnson was released,” the source said. “It wasn’t just because of the final thing he did.”
Johnson made a few mis-steps before being arrested for domestic violence and was cut by Philbin. Incognito also was involved in a 2012 incident when he was accused of molesting a woman with a golf club at a team charity event.
That incident, which the club negotiated into a private settlement, evidently played into the decision to release punish Incognito. Again, Incognito doesn’t look good in any of this. But it changes how the Martin saga gets viewed.
The Dolphins weren’t saying the evidence against Incognito is so egregious in this single episode they suspended him. They were tired of Incognito’s repeated misbehavior.
There are so many lawyers, careers and divergent viewers involved the truth will be hard to scratch here. But what if the narrative was wrong from the start?
What if Martin never told anyone there was a problem? What if Incognito wasn’t suspended only because of this incident?
It doesn’t change the fact ugliness occurred. But the ugliness might not be exactly what fueled the national talk for so long.