A Cautionary Tale of Social Media and Pro Sports Bullying

Remember Jonathan Martin, former offensive tackle with the Miami Dolphins, who went AWOL and left the team following a bullying scandal involving several of his teammates, most notably Richie Incognito?  Following Martin’s departure from the team during the 2013 season, the NFL tasked its go-to scandal investigator, the perpetually employed Ted Wells, to investigate and issue a report which revealed disturbing details about how Martin’s teammates tormented him and other members of the organization.

Well, now Martin is facing multiple felony counts in Los Angeles for making criminal threats in a 2018 Instragram post in which he wrote, “When you’re a bully victim & a coward, your options are suicide or revenge.” The post was accompanied by a picture of a shotgun with bullet casings.  Martin also hashtagged the Miami Dolphins and his high school and tagged Incognito and another former Dolphins teammate, Mike Pouncey.  Shortly after his post, Martin was also arrested in possession of a gun, knife, and ax.  He was charged with multiple felony counts under California’s Penal Code. 

Martin’s lawyers argued that his post was not specific or credible enough to constitute a crime.  However, the presiding judge, Shellie Samuels, recently ruled that Martin’s threats, indeed, were concrete enough that he must stand trial.  She even cited the fact that the number of bullet casings in the photo indicated that Martin was issuing a threat against others, as opposed to referencing suicide.  The fact that Martin also mentioned his high school in the aftermath of several high-profile school shootings in recent years certainly did not help his case either.  Finally, the fact that Martin actually possessed several weapons also contributed to the perception that his post indeed may have constituted threat.

The American criminal justice system is notoriously ineffective at preempting crimes.  In fact, RICO conspiracy statutes were born out of an effort to criminalize the planning of criminal acts among organized crime members.  In an age when concerns about mental health are growing, it is understandable why anyone would be alarmed and disturbed by Martin’s post.  However, it is far from clear that the judge got this decision right, as it requires a level of mind-reading that would make it hard for a jury of peers not to have some reasonable doubt about Martin’s intentions.  But it is politically easier to put the decision about Martin’s future in a jury’s hands, and it will be interesting to see how a jury interprets the facts.  Either way, Martin’s once promising career and life is in shambles while serving as a cautionary tale for all: be very careful what you write on social media, or anywhere for that matter.  

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