As the NFLPA attempts to strike the delicate balance between protecting the rights of Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin and Dolphins (for now) guard Richie Incognito, one potential strategy for handling the dilemma of victim and bully could be to paint both men as, to a certain extent, victims.
While it’s not known what the NFLPA will do, one obvious strategy consists of exploring what the coaching staff and front office knew about the interactions between Incognito and Martin. By making Incognito a member of the team’s six-man “leadership council” (the Dolphins don’t name captains), the Dolphins to a certain extent empowered him to dispense his own brand of leadership in the locker room — and validated his past efforts to lead.
Under that argument alone, the Dolphins could have some blame for giving a guy a position of leadership if there was reason to be concerned about the manner in which he would lead. Based on his history, there arguably was.
The situation gets far more interesting once Incognito is interviewed by NFL officials. Given his stream of angry tweets professing his innocence and demanding that his name be cleared, Incognito is either really stupid or he believed his interactions with Martin were appropriate.
Could Incognito claim that he was generally told to toughen up players who seem weak? Could Incognito claim that he was specifically told to toughen up Martin?
The possibilities quickly mirror the plot of A Few Good Men. While it’s unlikely that anyone from the Dolphins ordered a “Code Red” on Jonathan Martin, it’s not unreasonable to think that Incognito believed it was his job to ensure that teammates were as tough as he is when they’re all on the field together, trying to protect guys like quarterback Ryan Tannehill from being injured by the tough men who play for the opposing defenses.
One league source with knowledge of the situation believes that offensive line coach Jim Turner will become a focal point of the investigation. Even if Turner didn’t nudge Incognito to toughen up Martin, Turner would have had more access to the interactions between Incognito and Martin than any other member of management. What did Turner see? What if anything did he say?
Then there’s the broader question of whether Incognito interacted with other players the same way. Again, what did Turner see? What if anything did Turner say?
The question becomes how deep the rabbit hole goes, and how high the league will climb the ladder to get there. A year after the league threw the book at multiple members of Saints management for what turned out to be a broader cultural issue of bounties, the league eventually may have to decide whether to take action against Dolphins management, whether there’s a broader cultural issue at play, and whether that makes a difference if it appears that Incognito wasn’t simply acting on his own.