Embroiled in one of the biggest sports scandals of the year, the Miami Dolphins face allegations of bullying, racism and hazing. The details of "offensive lineman" Richie Incognito's alleged bullying of teammate Jonathan Martin have been well-reported in recent weeks, and the problems continue to swirl-around a football team that was already struggling.
The Dolphins played on Monday night as a national television audience wondered how the team's off-the-field problems would affect on-field performance. (They lost, by the way, crumbling in the waning minutes.) The rapidly changing and "he-said/she-said" nature of the Incognito/Martin imbroglio make it difficult to figure out who, if anyone, is telling the truth. While I have no intention of getting in the middle of it, I can tell you that the perception of dysfunction can have a huge negative effect on organizations like football teams or even your business. And there are some great examples of how this has played out.
Ever hear of a guy named John Elway? As an All-American quarterback at Stanford in 1983, Elway was the consensus first choice in that year's NFL Draft. The then-Baltimore Colts held the first pick and wanted him. Problem was that Elway didn't want to play for the Colts because they were awful, and head coach Frank Kush had a reputation as an extremely harsh taskmaster. (Kush's Wikipedia page reads like a football hazing manual. Among other misdeeds, he was accused in a lawsuit of punching a player in the mouth after a bad punt.) Elway literally played hardball with the Colts. A star baseball player, he told the Colts that if they picked him, he would play professional baseball instead and had even spent a summer in the New York Yankees farm system. The Colts did draft him but the damage was done as Elway eventually leveraged a trade to the Denver Broncos. The rest is NFL history. Elway went on to throw for more than 50,000 yards, won two Super Bowls and was a first ballot inductee into the NFL Hall of Fame. The dysfunctional Colts moved to Indianapolis and went another decade before winning a playoff game.
Or Eli Manning? Coming out of Ole Miss in 2004, Manning too was a consensus first choice in that year's NFL Draft. The San Diego Chargers held the first pick and wanted him. You see where this is going? Manning and his football legend father said that if drafted by San Diego, Eli wouldn't play for them. He didn't even feign other plans, though. The Mannings didn't like the way the Chargers were run and demanded that Eli be traded before he ever played a down in the NFL. Manning was drafted by San Diego but was then immediately traded to the New York Giants. He has won two Super Bowls and has been a top-tier quarterback for a decade. The Chargers, not as dysfunctional as the Colts, ended up with franchise quarterback Philip Rivers but have only had three playoff wins since.
What about Ryan Clark? Perhaps you haven't heard of him but die-hard Dolphins' fans have, and they don't like him very much. Clark was a prized NFL free agent defensive back in 2010 who rebuffed the Dolphins' efforts to sign him. (Talk about a hard-hitting safety: Clark has actually knocked opposing players unconscious.) But it doesn't end there. Clark was widely quoted last year as saying that "no one" wants to play for the Dolphins. Further evidence of Dolphins' dysfunction manifested in recent efforts to hire as head coaches Jim Harbaugh and Jeff Fisher -- both said no. When Peyton Manning was a free agent, he barely gave the Dolphins a listen.
At this stage of the controversy, it is very easy to pile-on and bash the Dolphins, but there's so much conflicting information out there, it's tricky to take a hard stance either way. Frankly, I've written many blog posts about professional sports including posts about Lance Armstrong, the Miami Marlins, the Washington Redskins and even the America's Cup. Sometimes I wonder if I'm overdoing it on these topics, but the Dolphins' scandal has reached national heights, and it is literally what everyone is talking about in my professional and personal circles.
My take in summary is that while the racy details continue to get the biggest headlines, the damage to the organization's reputation will have the greatest lingering effect on the team.
What do you think?
Cross-posted from DavidPRblog.