November 14, 2013

The NFL Bullying Scandal — Another Wake-Up Call for Whistleblower Reform in Sports

By Gordon Schnell

And yet another sports scandal.  This one so inconceivable you have to scratch your head and wonder.  Bullying in the NFL?  You would think this misbehavior would be limited to the playgrounds and schoolyards; to the outcasts, the misfits and the meek unable to stand up for themselves.  That a six-foot, five-inch, three-hundred pounder like Miami Dolphin offensive tackle Jonathan Martin would be far removed from this kind of torment and persecution.  Apparently even the biggest and toughest among us cannot escape this ever-present scourge.

But this is a story that goes well beyond bullying.  It extends to the anything-goes attitude that seems to pervade professional and college sports these days.  Lance, A-Rod, Oklahoma State, New Orleans Saints, Rutgers, Penn State, Barry Bonds.  The list of scandals goes on and on, all following a predictable course — the media frenzy; the public outrage; the investigation; the mea culpas; the punishment; and the promise for reform.  The fall-out lasts a while.  Then it all goes back to normal, eventually forgotten and ultimately supplanted by the next scandal which inevitably follows.

We are still in the early stages of this latest saga.  And it remains unclear exactly what happened between Martin and fellow Dolphin, Richie Incognito.  There are the charges of racism and a persistent pattern of abuse and harassment.  We assume it was all pretty dreadful since it caused Martin to walk away and the team to suspend Incognito.  But a different story is beginning to emerge.  That Incognito was just following orders.  The coaches supposedly wanted to “toughen up” the soft and sensitive Stanford student.  And fellow teammates are claiming the two were tight, like brothers.  They are in disbelief and denial over the account of bullying and many are taking Incognito’s side.

It is a complete mess.  Which brings us to the overlooked moral of this still developing story.  That is, the need for a full-fledged whistleblower program in professional and college sports.  This would be a program that not only educates and encourages players (not to mention coaches and staff) to say something when they see something, but also fully protects them for doing so.  That means players cannot be punished in any way for exposing the transgressions of their teammates or coaches.  And most importantly, they would be assured a safe and confidential passage for doing so.

It is such a simple and obvious way to attack what has so infected the hallowed tradition of our favorite sports and taken down some of our most celebrated icons.  Whistleblower reform has exploded in the business world over the past few years.  A bounty of legislation has been enacted or improved upon to encourage whistleblowers to step up and be heard (under the False Claims Act, Dodd-Frank Act, Sarbanes-Oxley, etc.).  It is time to bring this model to sports.

Think about how this latest muddle might have played out differently if a strong whistleblower program were in place.  Martin could have taken his concerns privately to his coaches, management or the league.  Teammates could have done the same if they bore witness to the mistreatment Martin is claiming.  No need to get the press involved.  No need for the whole world to learn about Martin’s woes, let alone the entirety of the NFL.  Whatever happens here, Martin’s NFL playing days will never be the same, if he ever will be able to play again.  The same goes for Incognito, who may in fact be guilty as charged, or may be just another casualty in this latest media firestorm.

So let this ongoing tale serve as a wake-up call to the NFL, the NCAA and all the other sports leagues and organizations who champion player health and safety as their top priority.  If player welfare really is the chief concern, then what better way to show it than by giving them a safe and ready channel to report wrongdoing early on, before it devolves into the next sports spectacle and reaches the point where the damage cannot be undone.

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