In the secretive workshop of the league offices in midtown Manhattan, the NFL crisis elves are busily crafting symbolic toys and gadgets to delight a public that desperately wants to believe in its favorite sport. They build solutions out of Legos -- colorful impermanent structures with the appearance of stability.
When the Cincinnati Bengals seemed to be choosing orange jumpsuits as a new uniform in 2006, with player after player popping up in police reports across America, the NFL cobbled a tough-love code of conduct. It proved to be such a crime-stopper that no player ever created chaos by raining money on partygoers (Pacman Jones), or took a loaded gun to a nightclub in his sweatpants (Plaxico Burress), or ran a dog-fighting ring in his backyard (Michael Vick).
When former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson provided America with a glimpse behind the hoodie of Bill Belichick in 2007 -- describing how his coach pressured him to play with concussion symptoms despite doctors' orders -- the league tecchies wired a solution: an anonymous hotline. Perfect, if the players hadn't been convinced that the tip line was equipped with caller ID.
When congresswoman Linda Sanchez scolded the league in 2009 for denying the mountain of evidence linking cognitive decline to concussions -- telling commissioner Roger Goodell, "It sort of reminds me of the tobacco companies pre-'90s when they kept saying, 'Oh, there's no link between smoking and damage to your health.'" -- the NFL calligraphers grabbed their Sharpies and wrote signs with big letters to be placed in locker rooms that read, Let's Take Brain Injuries Out Of Play. And workplace signs are very effective if anyone ever read them (see Emergency Evacuation Plans).
The NFL reacts by sending slick, meaningless messages to fans who are suckers for feel-good, fortune-cookie solutions. Whatever absolves them of the guilt for digging a sport built on violence.
But workplace bullying is universal and understood by anyone who was ever a child. So, that's pretty much everyone. In all the years of league debate and reaction over head injuries and crime sprees, end zone dancing and Twitter rants, Goodell has never faced a question like this: What to do about Jonathan Martin?
The league strategy in a crisis always has been to make a problem go away by putting committees around it. This time is no different. How many advisory board members does it take to screw in a light bulb? Who knows? No one ever is allowed in the meeting room. Let's hope the NFL's bullying investigation is more transparent than past self-inspections.
If, after the league investigators conduct interviews and comb through the vile texts sent to Martin by Dolphins linemate Richie Incognito -- or anyone else involved in the Miami ring of ridiculers -- and discover proof of a culture founded on humiliation and intimidation, let's hope the league goes against its history and ensures that the whistleblower has a bridge back to the game.
The best message that can be sent to bullies is that a victim can return to the playground. Reports in Miami indicate that Martin will never play for the Dolphins again, but, without question, he should find a new home team. As one NFL executive told Sports on Earth on condition of anonymity, "It will not be easy -- as you've seen, Incognito has his supporters -- but Roger has to find a way to get this guy back in the game."
If Goodell can find a landing place for a perpetrator of unspeakable acts in Vick -- who once said he was steered to the Eagles by the league after emerging from prison -- then can't the commissioner find a locker room to suit a vulnerable player who was subjected to unspeakable texts while simply doing his job?
It would not only be a victory for the bullied. It would also be a major milestone for sports whistleblowers. In the working world outside of the pros, a whistleblower can be viewed as a hero -- Hello, Norma Rae -- but the universe is flipped upside down inside the unconditional circle of loyalists who all but enter locker rooms with secret handshakes beholden to the team's Omerta.
Over the years, think about the whistleblowers in sports who have been brutalized and marginalized for coming forward with an ugly truth:
Neil Reed, 2000: The former Indiana hoops star bravely disclosed a story of abuse by coach Bobby Knight, who had choked him at a practice. Knight denied it. Reed was excoriated. And then a video of the incident emerged, ultimately leading to the controversial firing of Knight. Reed would tell reporters that his life was no easier because of the proof. Knight went on to coach again, land a TV gig with ESPN and sign on with endorsers such as Applebee's, which gladly traded on his anger rep for laughs in a commercial. At age 36, Reed died of a massive heart attack in July of 2012, and, as reported by Harvey Araton in The New York Times, Neil's father said, "His heart finally gave out."
Abar Rouse, 2003: The young Baylor basketball assistant secretly taped coach Dave Bliss' attempt to smear player Patrick Dennehy, who had been murdered by teammate Carlton Dotson, in an effort to cover up NCAA violations. Rouse was criticized by coaches such as Jim Boeheim for his disloyalty to Bliss -- another dignified moment for the pride of Syracuse -- and blackballed from Division I coaching. According to an ESPN "Outside the Lines" feature earlier this year, Rouse is now a recreational director at a prison. As he told OTL, "There is no upside in bringing things that are wrong with the program to the light. Absolutely no upside."
The Armstrong Sirens, 2003-2012. Almost everyone was too afraid to unveil the Lance Armstrong doping scheme until British journalist David Walsh came along in 2003. For years, he would report accounts from team masseuse Emma O'Reilly, cyclist Stephen Swart and reveal an arbitration case with the sworn statements of Betsy and Frankie Andreu, a longtime teammate of Armstrong's. Over the decade, Greg LeMond also voiced his doubts about the purity of Armstrong's fairytale dominance and massive fortune. All would suffer ridicule at the hands of Armstrong and his PR machinery. All would be ruined emotionally and/or financially. Armstrong would finally confess to doping this past year in what filmmaker Alex Gibney calls in his new documentary, "The Armstrong Lie," vindicating the victims of his persecution campaign. But they will never be made whole.
The NFL is faced with its own whistleblower in Martin. No doubt lawsuits could be filed. Already, Incognito has reportedly filed a grievance against the Dolphins over his indefinite suspension. And Martin could be thinking about a workplace lawsuit. Whatever legal briefs are filed, Martin deserves to play, but will there be a way? The public reaction will always have its outliers, with panting social media voices decrying the sissification of the NFL, but isn't it time we stop rewarding the bullies? For a league that always whips up a pop-up solution for every crisis -- via policies and placards -- isn't it time for a bridge forward to be built on meaning and not with Legos?