NHL Locker Room Cleanse – Legal Implications of Martin/Incognito Fallout

Leafs_Locker_Room

By now I’m sure many of you are familiar with the situation surrounding the Miami Dolphins locker room saga. A quick refresher, second-year offensive lineman Jonathan Martin recently walked out on the team for what were described as “emotional issues”. Over the coming days it was revealed that Martin had been the victim of bullying within the Dolphins’ locker room, with the purported ringleader being veteran offensive lineman Richie Incognito, who has been no stranger to controversy throughout his NFL career. Other revelations included stories of Dolphins rookies being pressured to pay for team functions for veteran players, including Martin being pressured to pay $15,000 towards a trip to Las Vegas by Dolphins lineman, and extreme forms of hazing that border on the edge of emotional abuse. In fact the HBO series Hard Knocks in 2012 showed the Dolphins rookies putting on a talent show at the behest of veterans during training camp. Martin is currently undergoing counseling in California, while Incognito has been suspended from the team and has filed his own grievance against the team. Ted Wells, a veteran New York attorney, was appointed to lead the investigation into the saga and get to the bottom of what exactly has been taking place in the Dolphins organization, including whether coaches and players had knowledge of the hazardous workplace and the role Incognito truly had in the situation.

Richie Incognito, Jonathan Martin

Now I’m not going to pretend to know I know what its like inside an NFL locker room, or other pro team locker room for that matter. It is a different cut of the cloth compared to a “normal” workplace. You have dozens of alpha males all trying to lay claim to their spot in the hierarchy, all the while making sums of money vastly exceeding the average worker. While the idea behind the hazing is to bring teammates closer together, the problem is that when that line gets crossed and a player’s health is affected there is still a code of silence that prevents players from speaking up. Such behaviour would likely subject the player to further abuse and ridicule within the locker room. However this situation with the Dolphins has the potential to create ramifications reaching far beyond the Dolphins locker room. There will be legal precedents coming out of this that could severely alter how athletes relate with each other in the room. This case could potentially be to hazing what the New Orleans Saints case was to bounties on players. No more will this be felt than in the NHL which has long been known for its machoistic attitude in the room and rookie initiations.

First lets examine what could potentially come out of the Dolphins situation. If Wells’ investigation reveals that the Dolphins knew of racial or sexual harassment of Martin by other players on the team and failed to take prompt, remedial action or if the team condoned the discrimination, they would be in violation of Title VII of The Civil Rights Act and could potentially be liable for the emotional damages resulting from the discriminatory behavior. What’s more is that under a Florida law called Evidencing Prejudice While Committing Offense, anyone who has been intimidated or threatened because of race or colour is entitled to triple monetary damages if the behaviour is determined to bring about an award. ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson speculates that a claim by Martin could bring rise to damages amounting to almost $15 million. And this is just for Martin. As mentioned, Incognito is pursuing his own grievance claim against the team, greatly increasing the potential financial hit to the Dolphins. Any sort of culpability on the team would have a major effect in shifting attitudes within the room as teams would become much more vigilant in monitoring this type of behaviour with hopes of limited similar future situations (and financial liabilities).

But therein lies the problem, this type of behaviour is not just a light switch that can be turned on/off in the room. If, say the NHL were to all of a sudden adopt a zero-tolerance policy on locker room hazing, the short-term consequences may actually be opposite of what is intended. As discussed above, the sports culture is much different than a normal workplace environment. The testosterone fueled attitudes need to be adjusted over team as part of a culture/attitude shift. Simply banning the behaviour may actually breed resentment among younger and older players, disrupting with team unity. Outside of federal and provincial laws, sports teams are governed by their own collective bargaining policies. Perhaps in the next round of CBA negotiations we see additions specifically dealing with workplace discrimination and hazing. Just picture it now, Gary Bettman & Donald Fehr having it out with each other in cowboy hats all the while trying to prevent that same behaviour in locker rooms. Oh the irony.

We are already seeing some leagues taking action as a result of the Martin/Incognito situation. The NBA has already sent a memo to teams outlining its current policy banning all forms of hazing and bullying. In the MLB, Commissioner Bud Selig said hazing is not an issue in baseball (Bud I think its time for you to retire…oh wait!) and he’s proud of players for being respectful. NCAA teams have long had to deal with complaints of hazing among athletes and alleged abuse by coaches. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has yet to come out to speak on the topic, but I wouldn’t doubt be surprised if the Board of Directors is looking at implementing a policy to address the issue. GM’s already discussed anti-bullying and revisited their hazing protocols at their latest meetings, and executives around the league seem unified that acceptance and tolerance within the locker room is a major issue that needs to be strongly addressed.

Whatever the fallout from the Martin/Incognito situation may be, its clear that the heightened awareness brought about by the situation will lead to stronger initiatives from sports leagues. While locker rooms have opened up their doors to the public through social media and documentaries such as 24/7 and CH24, there are clearly many things behind the scenes that the public does not experience. The NHL for one wants to make sure that level of respect within the locker room grows to a point where teams and leagues do not need to worry about financial liabilities going forward on the count of an unhealthy workplace.

Feel free to chime in on what you think professional sports teams need to do to clean up the workplace.

For Hockeyland Canada,

RK, Esq.

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One response to “NHL Locker Room Cleanse – Legal Implications of Martin/Incognito Fallout

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