What the Dolphins' bullying saga teaches us about team culture

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Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito. (AP Photo/David Richard)

Much has been written about the Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin situation that existed on the Miami Dolphins this season. At present, Incognito has been suspended from the Dolphins for behavior that has been described as bullying. Martin has taken an extended absence from the team for emotional reasons. 

It is unclear what exactly happened between these two professional football players in the Dolphins locker room and off the field during the past 2 years. The incidents have shed light, though, on locker room behavior that exists on many professional football teams. In fact, the “team culture” that seems to be common in professional football has also been found to be similar in other professional sports. 

The issue of locker room behavior is also one that is also relevant to youth sports, high school sports, and college sports. Team culture is often defined as what is expected and typical behavior among a group of athletes that are part of the same team. It is clear that team culture can often reinforce positive teambuilding behavior. It is evident, though, that just wearing the same team uniform does not guarantee that each player on the team will be treated with dignity and respect. 

Much of the anti-social behavior that is found in sports locker rooms is connected to the tradition of younger players “needing to pay their dues” to be part of the team. This can express itself in younger players having to carry the team equipment to and from practice or to entertaining the veteran players in a talent show. Many of these behaviors are considered fun by all members of the team. They can become bullying or hazing behaviors if they are physically, emotionally, or psychologically hurtful to a player. If this is the case, the player, or veteran players on the team need to have a mechanism to confidentially express their concern. 

It is interesting to note, however, that since the Dolphins’ incident with Incognito-Martin, the team has won several big games and the team is now in a position to make the playoffs. In my experience, after incidents like Incognito-Martin, a team can either go one of two ways. The team can become further divided and the team’s performance can be negatively affected. On the other hand, after a traumatic incident, teams can communicate, clear the air and pull together even tighter in order to achieve a team goal. 

In the Chinese language, the word for “crisis” is the same word for opportunity. The closest expression that we have in English is that there are two sides to every coin. A traumatic team incident can certainly be a crisis for a player or players on a team. If this is the case, there needs to be a mechanism to help these players. 

When an unfortunate incident happens to a player or team, sometimes there is a learning opportunity that can come about where valuable sport and life lessons can be learned that can be applied as a player, or ateam, tries to move forward. 


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