The alleged harassment in the Miami Dolphins locker room became one of the biggest off-gridiron topics in contemporary NFL history.
Furthermore, a Japanese staff member was an alleged victim.
Although the NFL is investigating the case, according to the Feb. 14 report issued by Ted Wells, an independent counsel hired by the league, offensive linemen Richie Incognito, Mike Pouncey and John Jerry created a culture of harassment in the team’s locker room, targeting tackle Jonathan Martin and a pair of others, including Japanese-born assistant athletic trainer Naohisa Inoue (the report only explains that it’s a trainer “who was born in Japan.” But Inoue is the only Japanese on the job).
According to the 144-page Wells report, Inoue, who completed his fourth season with Miami in December, was a frequent target of the linemen. They often teased Inoue, with anti-Asian slurs and on Pearl Harbor Day in 2012 they put Japanese headbands on and physically threatened him in retaliation for the attack, the report said.
Here’s a description from the report on what Incognito and others allegedly did to him:
“We found that the Assistant Trainer, who was born in Japan, was the target of frequent and persistent harassment, including insults relating to his race and national origin. Incognito, Jerry and Pouncey admitted that they directed racially derogatory words toward him, including ‘Jap’ and ‘Chinaman.’ At times, according to Martin, they referred to the Assistant Trainer as a “dirty communist” or a “North Korean…”
While more concrete details on this issue may be revealed later, many Japanese sports fans, who may not be familiar with North American sports culture, might have been shocked by all this, and may have started wondering:
Is this a common culture that’s occurring in any NFL locker room or in American sports leagues in general?
The Japan Times sent an email to the Dolphins seeking comment from Inoue, an Osaka Prefecture native, on what allegedly happened, but he was not made available.
Harvey Greene, the team’s vice president of media relations, responded by saying, “As per our organizational policy, all our football support staff are not available to the media.”
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Meanwhile, according to some Japanese who have previously worked in the NFL and played in American sports leagues, what happened in the Dolphins locker room didn’t surprise them much.
Hiroki Sato, who worked for the Houston Texans as an assistant athletic trainer for two years from 2005, said that the news was a huge deal, but believed that things like this have happened in the past.
“I didn’t necessarily take them as racial abuse or bullying,” said Sato, recalling his own days in the NFL. “But some players were misunderstanding about Japan and were teasing me because I’m a Japanese.”
He said, however, that the majority of NFL players have mutual respect for each other while aiming for one common goal: a Super Bowl title.
“I remember that I was told by a player that he had respect for me and I was so pleased to hear that,” said Sato, who currently serves as a part-time athletic trainer for the Panasonic Impulse of Japan’s X League. “I think that they perhaps crossed the line a little too far at the Dolphins.”
Another former Japanese NFL team staff member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, recalled not receiving any negative treatment because of race, yet it “could happen anywhere and in any profession.”
In 2009, quarterback Tomotsuna Inoue played for the Tri-Cities Fever, then of the arenafootball2 league, the now-defunct development league of the Arena Football League (the team now plays in the Indoor Football League). He remembered that he would be harassed by his teammates, which he didn’t think was necessarily a joke.
“One day, I woke up in the morning and there were tons of used towels piled up in front of my hotel room,” said Tomotsuna Inoue, adding that teammates also chaffed him because he was Asian.
Inoue, who attempted to become the first Japanese NFL player, believed that there had been similar situations in the NFL before this Dolphins case, but abusing a non-playing staff member like the Dolphins trainer should not be overlooked.
“If that’s between players, they are of the same level,” the former quarterback said. “But an athletic trainer is not.”
How about in other American leagues?
Or is this something that can only be seen in the macho culture of football?
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Another Japanese, who requested anonymity, worked for an NBA club as a staff member and recalled never experiencing or seeing anything like what allegedly happened in the Dolphins locker room.
“I can’t speak for other clubs, but as far as the team I worked for, I never felt any inconveniences. It was a team like a family,” the source said.
According to the Wells report, Kevin O’Neill, who was Miami’s long-time head athletic trainer before being fired on Feb. 19, overheard the insults directed at Martin and Inoue but sometimes even laughed along with them and didn’t intervene.
Dolphins offensive line coach Jim Turner also lost his job on the same day as O’Neill.
The former NBA team staff member insisted that if that report was true, O’Neill should have put a stop to the alleged abuse directed at his subordinate.
“It’s not his obligation,” the source said. “But if you are a head athletic trainer and can’t protect your assistant, I don’t think he’s qualified for that position.”
But, of course, even the Japanese who commented on this issue couldn’t fully imagine what the Japanese trainer may have gone through.
At the end of the day, they all cared for their compatriot and hoped he wasn’t too devastated by the mistreatment.
One of the sources said, “I hope things (like this) will never happen anywhere, and we all will be more educated about politically correct behavior.”
Disciplinary action against the Dolphins and the accused players by the NFL has yet to be determined.
But hopefully, this unfortunate case will not affect those from Japan seeking to work for sports organizations in foreign countries, including the United States.