11/11/2013 01:15 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Moral Price of Belonging: What Can We Learn From the Dolphins' Locker Room?

For almost a week now, allegations of hazing and bullying have rocked the Miami Dolphins football team. In response, Dolphins players have defended Richie Incognito as a "team leader" and Jonathan Martin's mentor and friend. Martin, not Incognito, was the problem. Martin was "standoffish," lacking in mental toughness, and unwilling to pay his dues like other rookies. Martin's worst offense was walking out on his team and making his grievances public. He ratted out a teammate and revealed his lack of character by failing to work out his issues with his teammates in the locker room. Is Martin really the victim here or a crybaby, not fit for the rough and tumble world of the NFL?

The debate swirling around Martin has gone well beyond the sports pages and involves far more than the "code" of the NFL locker room. At issue is the responsibility of those who have power to look after those who are marginalized because they don't seem to "fit in." I am talking about the responsibility of not only NFL owners and coaches but also of athletic directors and coaches. I am talking about the responsibility of athletes who wield power in their peer groups and who can turn a whole group against an individual at the slightest provocation. We all know their "victims." They are the children, adolescents, and young adults, who have endured taunts, ridicule, and exclusion because they stuttered, dressed out of style, were socially awkward, or got "A"s in class. What price should they be asked to pay to be accepted into the group?

I have spent most of my career as an educational psychologist, working with teachers and more recently with coaches to address the cultures of the classrooms and teams. Left unattended, I find that classroom and team cultures can become uncaring and even cruel. Under the direction of morally aware teachers and coaches, however, they can become welcoming and engaging. In an ongoing study funded by the Templeton Foundation, we are finding that at in the early adolescent years sports teams are on the whole more successful at discouraging bullying and encouraging inclusiveness than classrooms and even religious groups. One reason for this appears to be that sports teams tend to engender a sense of family that extends to everyone regardless of athletic ability or friendship group. Of course, the cultures of sports teams vary widely according to the coach. Many coaches embrace the role of moral leadership and look after all of their players. Sadly, some coaches ignore the social dynamics of the locker room or are themselves bullies, who punish and demean their players under the guise of "motivating" them or toughening them up for the next level of competition.

I know of no research that shows that punishing or demeaning others is a successful strategy for goading them to higher levels of achievement. I am afraid that we all too often allow the end of winning to excuse the means of intimidation and abuse, and we too easily confuse incivility and conformity with toughness and loyalty. The discussion over the culture of the Dolphins' locker room will, I hope, lead us all to greater clarity about the moral principles that ought to inform the relationship between the group and individual and between those who have power and those who do not. How we evaluate the Dolphin's team culture will have consequences that reach well beyond the NFL locker room.