American Football: Miami Dolphins owner seeks to end 'bullying' row that has divided NFL locker rooms

Offensive lineman Jonathan Martin's reaction to 'hazing' by one of his team-mates has resulted in a national debate over race and sport

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Stephen Ross, the billionaire owner of the Miami Dolphins, will meet Jonathan Martin, the offensive blocker who dramatically walked out of the squad complaining of bullying, racial slurs and threats of violence from his team-mate Richie Incognito, in an attempt to resolve a controversy that has increasingly gripped the whole country.

Martin's reaction to the "hazing", which appears to be widespread within the National Football League, has turned into a national debate over race and sport. Meanwhile, the NFL is conducting an urgent investigation into a scandal that has become the latest in a string of events to call into question the macho, take-no-prisoners culture of America's richest and most violent sports league.

The uproar began when Martin, in his first season with the Dolphins, quit and took his case to lawyers. After the release of the text of a voice message in which Incognito used racist language and told Martin, "I'll kill you," the Dolphins suspended Incognito while the League launched its investigation. "It couldn't have been a worse nightmare," said Ross, professing himself "appalled" by the allegations and determined to get to the bottom of what happened.

However, the affair is less than straightforward. Most people outside the game have sided with Martin. But even many of them wonder if the term "bullying" really applies to offensive linesmen, among the very biggest men in a sport full of them. Both Incognito and Martin weigh well over 300 lbs (21 stone).

By contrast, the bulk of the players themselves, even some black players, have tended to support Incognito, suggesting that Martin breached the informal code of conduct of NFL locker rooms. Tyson Clabo, another Dolphins offensive tackle (who is white), was quoted as saying that Martin, "needs to stand up and be a man".

In fact, Martin is something of an anomaly among NFL black players. Usually they come from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds. But his parents, one a college administrator, the other a lawyer, were educated at Harvard. Martin might have gone to Harvard too, but for the fact that it does not have much of a football programme. Instead, he attended the scarcely less prestigious Stanford University in California where he studied classics.

"If you don't fit into the mould, and the culture in the locker room, you won't last," Coy Wire, another Stanford alumnus who played in the NFL and is now a commentator for Fox Sports, said last week. "Sometimes, in a gladiator sport like football, intelligence can be perceived as being soft."

Whatever else, the incident only highlights the current paradox of the NFL. It is America's most popular and richest sports league, with annual revenues approaching $10bn (£6.25bn), yet its public image has rarely been worse.

In 2011, the New Orleans Saints were found to have been paying bounties to players who injured opponents. Only last August the NFL agreed an unprecedented $765m (£480m) settlement of a concussions lawsuit brought by former players.

Meanwhile, the Washington Redskins may be ranked by Forbes as the eighth most valuable sports team on earth, worth some $1.6bn. But even President Obama has joined the campaign for the team to change its name, held to be racially offensive. Dan Snyder, the Redskins' owner, refuses, however, to entertain the notion.

Stephen Ross, the Dolphins owner, was ‘appalled’ by the allegations (Getty) Stephen Ross, the Dolphins owner, was ‘appalled’ by the allegations (Getty)  

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