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Business Blitz: Dolphins may have violated the law in Jonathan Martin case

The Bottom Line: Stop listening to players  sports writers in the Jonathan Martin case. The Dolphins could be in deep poo.

Fans see sports as an escape from the frustrations of everyday life. So they hold sports teams immune from society's problem. They couldn't be more wrong.

Pro sports teams are work places. They are subject to the same employment laws as everyone else.

Dolphins lineman Jonathan Martin left the team alleging bullying by fellow players. Players and sports writers reacted superficially with most implying Martin's personal weakness. That reaction is not unlike the storm of criticism facing Jay Cutler when he sat out the end of a playoff game on doctor's orders.

It challenged the sense of manly belligerence expected of football players. But Cutler was correct to sit out the rest of that game. Martin may have been just as correct to walk away. Both cases were more than a question of manhood.

Fast moving developments in Martin's story hint at something dark in the Dolphins' workplace. That's bad business for the NFL.

Martin is accusing the Dolphins of more than good-natured hazing. However,  he mislabeled it as bullying instead of workplace harassment, potentially a serious violation of federal employment law.

Civil rights laws deem it illegal to harass a player based on race, religion, gender, marital status, sexual orientation and a host of other categories. With the way these laws have been expanded, everybody falls into a protected category. Federal courts take a dim view of employee harassment if management knew about it and did not act to stop it.

When you read "dim view," think "big financial hit." 

We don't know if Martin fits into a category, or if the alleged harassment was based on it, but Martin was singled out somehow. 

By Sunday evening, NFL.com reporter  Albert Breer wrote that Martin informed head coach Joe Philbin about the issue last spring. That's a smoking gun if Martin chooses to make a federal case of it.

After a perfunctory "We do not tolerate bullying" statement when the story broke, the Dolphins  indefinitely suspended  guard Richie Incognito shortly after Martin filed a grievance with the Players' Union. (Now, Incognito has reason to file a grievance.)

Martin may have felt coerced by Incognito to contribute $15,000 for a Las Vegas boondoggle last summer and hid it from teammates. Incognito's abrupt suspension suggests the team knew more than it is letting on. They may not have recognized its significance until the fertilizer hit the ventilator..

Harassment stems from an unbalanced relationship in the workplace.  It is an ongoing pattern of behavior that makes it impossible for the employee to work.

Employer knowledge of the behavior makes them a participant in the eyes of the law. Courts can be downright punitive if it can be proven that the bosses knew of the harrassment and did little to stop it.

The Dolphins have run to the NFL to conduct an impartial review ‒ and to deal with the union. The league has a winning record in court, but they would rather negotiate broadcast contracts and licensing deals instead of hot potatoes dropped in its lap.

The first thing they do Monday morning is remind every team there is a fine line between hazing and a hostile work environment. To be sure every team knows where that line is, the league will order sensitivity training for everyone.   

It's the first step every employer takes when accused of discrimination even if it does not prove to be the case.

Meanwhile, Coach Philbin should make a quick Wikipedia check of Joe Paterno to see what happens when an executive is so focused on his program that he misses important red flags. The picture staring back could be his own.

Anthony Brown

About Anthony Brown

Lifelong Redskins fan and blogger about football and life since 2004. Joined MVN's Hog Heaven blog in 2005 and then moved Redskins Hog Heaven to Bolguin Network. Believes that the course of a season is pre-ordained by management decisions made during the offseason. Can occasionally be found on the This Given Sunday blog and he does guest posts.

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