Many of us hoped bullying would end once we left high school. For most of us, our prayers have been answered. For those less fortunate, like Jonathan Martin, bullying has carried on well into the adult years. In Martin’s case, his suffering was at the hands of Miami Dolphins teammate Richie Incognito, an infamous NFL bad boy.

The Dolphins picked up Incognito, a guard, in 2010 after he played four-and-one-half seasons with the St. Louis Rams and a half-season with the Buffalo Bills. The Dolphins drafted Martin, an offensive tackle from Stanford, in the 2012 draft, but this October Martin abruptly left the team. Eventually, it was disclosed that he decided to leave because he could no longer handle the physical and mental abuse that he received from his teammates, and in particular, from Incognito. The abuse included racially charged texts and voicemails and even physical threats against Martin and his family.

But was this really bullying, or just lighthearted hazing among the guys? According to Dolphins teammates, Incognito was an honorary “black guy” and had a “pass” to use racially charged epithets such as the N-word. Numerous players have come to Incognito’s defense amid allegations that he is a racist. As far as being a bully is concerned, the polls may speak for themselves. In a 2009 vote by ninety-nine NFL players, Incognito was named that year’s “Dirtiest Player.” In Miami, however, Incognito is a leader, serving on the six-member players’ council.

Throughout the NFL, “bullying” is not the term many players would use to describe the activities that transpired between Martin and Incognito. Some would call it hazing, others a rite of passage. Whatever the correct appellation, it seems to be an accepted, though perhaps “twisted,” part of NFL culture. In all honesty though, what did we expect to go on behind those locker room doors? When you put a group of 300-pound, testosterone-filled, aggressive men in close confines, egos will surely rise and tempers will inevitably flare. But more than that, football is a team sport. Players often want to see to it personally that every one of their teammates has the mental endurance to pull out a win in close games.

Perhaps in this case, it’s Martin’s lack of aggression, his lack of mental fortitude, that caused the taunts to endure. Martin is described as shy and soft-spoken — traits that aren’t generally respected on the gritty, violent gridiron. Allegedly, the Dolphins’ coaches noticed this and gave other players the green light to bring Martin out of his shell. But by some accounts, Incognito broke the “code:” hazing is only supposed to occur in rookie training camp, after that you’re one of the guys. Martin, a second-year pro, still suffered taunts and never quite fit in with the guys on the team (many Dolphins players have sided with Incognito on the issue).

Recently, Martin has checked into a hospital to be treated for emotional distress. He has fully complied with NFL investigators. He has retained well-known sports attorney David Cornwell. Is it possible that Martin is gearing up for a legal battle?

As a technical matter, “bullying” ends in the twelfth grade. Therefore, if there is to be any legal basis for Martin’s claims it must fall under principles of harassment. In Florida, it is a crime to engage in cyberstalking. Section 784.048 of the 2013 Florida Statutes defines cyberstalking as “a course of conduct to communicate . . . words, images, or language by . . . electronic communication, directed at a specific person, causing substantial emotional distress . . .” without a legitimate purpose. Harassment is embedded in this definition of cyberstalking. In other words, cyberstalking (a first-degree misdemeanor) is harassment by electronic device. And if Incognito’s threats are deemed credible, he could face a stiffer penalty: a third degree felony.

The decision as to whether this activity will be considered cyberstalking or hazing may ultimately rest with Martin. It is unlikely that the State will decide to pursue criminal charges on its own, so any legal battle will surely be at the insistence of Martin. Will  Martin go on the offense with Florida’s cyberstalking statute? Or, aiming to win the war, not just the battle, will he set his sights on the entire Dolphins franchise for tolerating a hostile work environment? He may want to choose carefully, as his future in the NFL may evaporate depending on which path he chooses.

–Samara Shepherd

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