Days after the NFL said it was ready to make history by welcoming its first openly gay player, a report indicates that one team in the league promoted an intolerant locker room culture that harassed a player to the brink of suicide.
Three Miami Dolphins players used "racial slurs and other racially derogatory language" as well as "homophobic name-calling and improper physical touching" to bully teammate Jonathan Martin as well as another player and an assistant trainer, both unnamed, according to independent investigator Ted Wells, who filed his report to the league on Friday.
The revelations come after prospect Michael Sam, a 2013 All-American, announced on Sunday that he is gay, putting him on course to be the first openly gay athlete in any of the major American team sports. Sam was voted by coaches as the top defensive player in the Southeastern Conference, college football's toughest league.
Wells' report provides an unflattering snapshot of a locker room culture where off-color remarks about sexual preference and race are commonplace. Even so, the harassment Martin and the others received startled even veteran NFL players.
"I've been in some bad locker rooms, but they weren't dysfunctional in that they were demeaning to people," said former NFL lineman Ed Cunningham, who played for Arizona and Seattle in the 1990s. "We had fights, but they were based on something that was done dirty on the playing field, or because someone thought they were going to get cut and were jealous. . . . To hear about that type of [Dolphins] locker room was shocking to me."
It is unclear what the NFL will do next, but sensitivity training is likely to be a point of emphasis at the league's annual rookie symposium, which is mandatory for every incoming draft class and covers a wide array of topical issues and concerns.
The league has a history with Roger Goodell as commissioner of moving to stamp out bad behavior. The New England Patriots were fined $750,000 and lost a first-round draft choice when caught videotaping an opposing team's signals. And the New Orleans Saints were hit with several suspensions — losing head Coach Sean Payton for an entire season — when an alleged pay-to-injure bonus system was revealed.
Earlier this week, the league reacted with plaudits to the news about Sam. "We admire Michael Sam's honesty and courage," the NFL said in a statement. "Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014."
Details in Wells' 144-page report about Martin's experience in his two seasons as an NFL player indicate at least one team might not be so ready. The report says Martin was so distraught by the treatment of his Dolphins teammates — specifically fellow offensive linemen Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey — that he twice contemplated suicide in 2013. He finally quit the team last fall, in the middle of the season.
In his report, Wells acknowledges the juxtaposition of the Martin and Sam situations. "With the recent announcement by Michael Sam . . . that he is gay, it is even more urgent that a tolerant atmosphere exist throughout the league," Wells wrote. "The frequent use of homophobic insults undermines this goal."
"Michael Sam coming into the league puts the NFL locker room under the microscope even more," Cunningham said. "The league needs to be very diligent in the actions that come out of this [Dolphins] report, make sure they're followed through, listen to the reaction of the fans and the public. The coincidence of the timing of this is very important to the NFL and how they're seen."
One labor expert said the NFL is facing an image crisis over its handling of concussions and health issues of retired players, the controversy surrounding the Redskins nickname, and the coarse culture of locker rooms — which have become more public as technology and TV have brought fans increasingly closer to what happens on and off the field.
"All of these things suggest that the game is insufficiently sensitive to both civility, good manners and fair treatment," said Stanford law professor William B. Gould, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board. "This is something that's going to become increasingly important."
In independent written statements, the NFL, the NFL Players Assn. and the Dolphins said they intended to review the Wells report before commenting.
Martin, who played at Harvard-Westlake High and Stanford, hopes to return to the NFL next season, said his agent, Kenny Zuckerman, who added that Martin "is glad that this is behind him."
Incognito's lawyer, Mark Schamel, called the Wells report "replete with errors."