Keeping Score

Leadership Lessons From The Miami Dolphins Mess

Mentoring dynamics may change in the NFL

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Joe Rimkus Jr. / Miami Herald / MCT / Getty Images

Richie Incognito, left, and Jonathan Martin, right, take their stances during Miami Dolphins practice on July 23, 2013.

The NFL bullying case in Miami offers any organization a surefire reminder: pick your mentors carefully.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported on Tuesday that, according to its sources, the team’s coaches asked Richie Incognito to “toughen up” Jonathan Martin after Martin missed a voluntary workout in the spring. Incognito, the paper says, then sent his threatening and racially charged voicemail to Martin, in which he called Martin a “half n—– piece of s—,” and said “I’ll kill you,” among other incendiary remarks.

The NFL, on Wednesday, announced that it had appointed attorney Ted Wells to investigate the bullying case. After Martin left the team last week, Incognito was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team. When asked if the coaches told Incognito to toughen up Martin, the Dolphins did not comment, citing the NFL’s probe.

This latest twist brings to mind the 1992 movie, a Few Good Men, in which Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Nathan Jessup character finally admits that he did, indeed, order a brutal hazing — the “code red” — for a struggling Marine. The order resulted in the death of Private Santiago.

Isaiah Kacyvenski, a linebacker in the NFL from 2000 to 2006, says none of his coaches gave such brutal instructions, but they did ask players to toughen up their peers. “I’ve heard that comment made, that we need to get this guy tough,” says Kacyvenski. “We need to change their mentality, their approach to the game. I’ve heard it over and over.”

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On sports teams, coaches often rely on veterans to play foot-solider and enforce their message. “There’s more of a peer-to-peer understanding,” says Kacyvenski. “It’s not just some old coach talking about it.”

When he was offensive coordinator in Minnesota, Brian Billick remembers Chris Carter mentoring rookie Randy Moss. “Chris Carter could get done in just a couple of well-placed words, what might take me a month of Sundays to communicate to Randy,” says Billick. “There’s a respect factor. The fact that he’s one of them. When you have a good veteran [in the] locker room, it can be a strong weapon.”

Billick, now a football analyst for Fox, coached the Baltimore Ravens from 1999-2007. He won a Super Bowl in 2001. Billick says he can’t remember asking a player to “toughen up” one of this teammates, though he says he did ask players to show rookies the proper way to watch film, and approach post-practice workouts.

Former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Brian Finneran mentored Roddy White in 2005, White’s rookie year. Finneran took a tough-love approach with his fellow wideout. “He thought his stuff didn’t stink,” says Finneran, who says he’s now good friends with White. “I told him things like, ‘if you want to be successful, stay out of the clubs on Friday night.’ Some veterans can come in on Saturday smelling like a brewery and perform on Sunday. He wasn’t there yet.” Finneran, who is white, used foul language with White, who is black. But he steered very clear of racial slurs. “Oh yeah, there was a lot of cursing,” says Finneran, now a sports talk radio host in Atlanta. “Like a sailor. The filter is not there.”

Players just can’t go too far, like Incognito allegedly did. And while leaders should always trust workers to spread their messages, they have to take an active oversight role. “It’s important to have mentors,” says Nefertiti Walker, an organizational behavior professor at UMass’ Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management. “They can really help inexperienced workers get up to speed quickly. But the mentees need a voice. They have to have somewhere to go to talk about things, in confidence, if the mentor has too much power.”

Kacyvenski believes that coaches will alter their approach. “Absolutely, there will be more checks and balances,” says Kacyvenski. “Now, you will rarely hear coaches say ‘go toughen that guy up, do what you’ve got to do.’ That’s not going to happen. Coaches will clearly spell out their instructions. If they don’t, the impact could be devastating.”

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