The specifics are still not totally clear regarding the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying saga that's currently embarrassing the Miami Dolphins. What we do know, however, is that this is not just about one bad apple or one "soft" rookie, and not just about a broad NFL culture that encourages aggressive behavior. What's really behind the alleged harassment is a lack of leadership.
The question is: By whom?
Is it Stephen Ross's leadership that's missing? On Wednesday, the Miami Dolphins owner was planning to meet with Martin in person, apparently for the first time, after Martin left the team and Incognito was suspended for racist, threatening comments. He's waiting until after Martin meets with Ted Wells, the independent investigator appointed by the NFL, but who knows why he didn't have an initial meeting before this controversy got so far along.
Then there are the other Dolphins players themselves. Some of them have defended Incognito and have said the job of leaders on the field is to make sure the weak links get "weeded out." Is that really leadership? Teammates who choose not to question the status quo and chalk up threatening behavior as simply the culture of the game are missing the whole point of what it means to be leaders on--or off--the field.
There's also the question of what responsibility Dolphins' head coach, Joe Philbin, and general manager, Jeff Ireland, bear. Some sports analysts and writers are rightly wondering how the coaches didn't know, or at least didn't stop, a locker room culture that appears to have included everything from verbal harassment to making rookies pay for expensive social outings. And if in fact the coaching staff asked Incognito to "toughen up" Martin, as has been reported, there's yet another reason for their leadership to come under scrutiny.
Meanwhile, others are asking why Incognito, known as an effective player yet one with a checkered history, was hired by the Dolphins in the first place, much less named to the team's "leadership council." The Dolphins' front office is on the hook for shaping the team's roster into one without many veterans or much seniority. The Associated Press reports that 20 of the team's 53 players are new this season. The oldest player is a long snapper, not a central playmaker, and the next two most-senior players by age joined the team this year. When there are few veteran players (or at least few long-time teammates who have strong relationships and have earned the respect of their colleagues), there's no one around to step in and say things have gone too far.
The reality is that some blame probably lies at all these levels. Yes, players who see or hear inappropriate behavior should be responsible for not turning a blind eye. But it's also the job of the franchise's leaders to make sure that, when filling the roster, it takes into account not just on-field talent but off-field character, overall team makeup and veteran experience. That's what builds a sustainable--and professional--winning team.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.