WEST PALM BEACH, FL (CN) - A pro football trainer fired by the Miami Dolphins says the team used him as a scapegoat for the locker room bullying scandal that marred their 2013 season.
Kevin O'Neill sued the Dolphins, head coach Joe Philbin, and owner Stephen Ross, claiming they unfairly blamed him for a culture of vicious bullying among players.
O'Neill, who reportedly won the National Football League Trainer of the Year award while the bullying scandal was brewing, says he did "nothing wrong" and was fired in order to placate league officials.
He says he was "targeted by the Dolphins as a 'scapegoat'" for the alleged locker room mistreatment of the team's right tackle Jonathan Martin.
After 18 years as a Dolphins head trainer, O'Neill was blindsided by the news that he was being canned, according to his lawsuit.
O'Neill "cannot reasonably be blamed" for the locker room antics, given that the Dolphins had brought a "notorious bully" -- offensive guard Richie Incognito -- to the team, the lawsuit argues.
"The Dolphins' management knew all the details of Incognito's checkered past, both on and off the playing field, including multiple arrests, at least one criminal conviction, and enough fines and penalties to earn him recognition as 'The NFL's Dirtiest Player,'" the lawsuit claims.
At the center of the bullying scandal, Incognito was suspended in 2013 based on allegations that he had bandied racial slurs around, humiliated Martin in front of their peers and made jokes about copulating with Martin's sister. According to the allegations, Incognito left a voicemail wherein he called Martin a "half-nigger piece of shit" and told him: "I'm gonna slap your fuckin' mouth. I'm gonna slap your real mother across the face. Fuck you, you're still a rookie. I'll kill you."
The scandal seized media attention when Martin left the team, checking himself into a psychiatric facility in October 2013 midseason.
A few months later, an NFL-commissioned investigative report determined that although Martin and Incognito appeared to be "mutual friends" who jokingly made "crude misogynistic and homophobic remarks" to each other, the friendship "does not excuse the abuse."
According to the report, authored by attorney Theodore Wells, the Dolphins locker room was filled with "gutter humor," and O'Neill was complicit in some inappropriate behavior, including racial slurs directed at an Asian-American assistant in the training department.
Incognito, along with teammates John Jerry and Mike Pouncey, allegedly called the assistant a "Jap" and a "Chinaman," and on the anniversary of the attack at Pearl Harbor, they donned headbands and threatened to exact vengeance on him, according to the Wells report.
"Martin and other players claimed that O'Neill, the head trainer, not only overheard the racist insults, but also sometimes laughed along and never intervened. We did not cover this specific topic in our interview with O'Neill, which was cut short because O'Neill expressed hostility toward our investigation," the report states.
O'Neill's lawsuit counters that the assistant himself denied being the victim of harassment.
The lawsuit characterizes the Wells report as flawed and misleading.
"The Dolphins knew that there were serious deficiencies in the Wells Report and that the picture of workplace bullying presented in the report was flawed. Nevertheless, the Dolphins chose to avoid challenging the contents and findings and elected instead to sacrifice a 'scapegoat' to placate the National Football League and other critics of the Dolphins," the lawsuit states. "The chosen scapegoat was Kevin O'Neill."
O'Neill says he was fired even though the Wells report indicates he neither made any offensive comments nor knew the extent to which Martin was being bullied. O'Neill goes on to argue that he was singled out for termination because he refused to discuss players' private matters with investigators.
He seeks damages for defamation, claiming that in a press release announcing his release, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross sullied his good name and falsely accused him of poor judgment.
According to the Dolphins website, the team traded Martin to the San Francisco 49ers for an undisclosed draft pick.
Incognito reportedly signed with the Buffalo Bills in February 2015.
The Dolphins went 8-8 over the course of the scandal-plagued 2013 season and failed to make the playoffs.
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