This month, Jonathan Martin, an offensive lineman on the Miami Dolphins football team, walked out and quit the team due to a perceived hostile work environment allegedly characterized by demeaning, racially-biased communications and financial extortion by at least one team captain and other senior members of the team. Though a lot of details are yet unknown, the events thus far are sufficient to provide a lesson for our own military community.
Like a professional sports team, our military is comprised of motivated people held to a high threshold of performance where teamwork is essential to success. How does a professional athlete who has passed so many hurdles and is presumably fulfilling a dream to participate at the height of his profession suddenly up and quit? We might ask ourselves what would drive a dedicated and professionally fulfilled service member proudly serving our nation to become similarly disenchanted.
Let’s start at the top. Like a head coach or general manager, commanders are ultimately responsible for what happens in their organization. The unit climate is actively set by the things the commander says and does; passively set by the items that are ignored or allowed to pass without comment; and reflected in the appointment of subordinate leaders. Within the Dolphins, it appears that leadership accepted at least some level of hazing toward newer/younger players. Beyond being an ineffective leadership tool that destroys morale, hazing and other demeaning “rites of passage” typically spiral into increasingly harsh treatment that quickly surpasses all misguided intent and results in physical or emotional injury.
Selective enforcement of “acceptable” levels of this destructive behavior is impossible, and commanders who explicitly allow some of these activities tacitly approve all of them. That the individual in question did not discuss the issue with any other figures of authority within the organization speaks to a lack of basic trust in the leadership chain. Clearly Mr. Martin felt his leadership condoned the activities he was subjected to.
Mid-level leaders, either team captains or other “players council” members, appear to be complicit, either by their own actions or through concurrence by silence, in maintaining the established environment. While seemingly unaware of the most egregious activities, they were certainly aware of other incidents.
What about the “wingmen?” Although teammates were reportedly unaware of the most extreme instances, they were all apparently subjected to at least some level of hostility and harassment themselves. Also, while the most serious allegations rise from a relatively short time period, they merely culminate a progressive string of increasing severity. While some would fail to get involved, either out of fear or lack of concern, a proactive wingman (of the sort we should aspire to be) would be engaged, take notice and question the negative impacts to the teammate.
Regardless of how the Dolphins’ situation plays out, there are important lessons for us all.
Commanders need to foster an environment free from hostility and not tolerate any such behavior, no matter how “minor.” Supervisors need to nurture a workplace where subordinates feel safe coming forward with their concerns. Finally, all of us should strive to be great wingmen, standing up for, and supporting, each other when necessary.
Editor’s Note: Gummel is stationed at Beale Air Force Base, Calif.