It was the talk of the professional sports world last week: not a game or a win or a great catch but a story about a bully. Two players on the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins were caught in a bullying battle. One was suspended by the team. One quit the team.
Bullying. That’s when one person with more power attacks another person with less power. Uses hurtful words. Does hurtful things. Intimidates. Embarrasses. Humiliates. Physically assaults a weaker person.
That the bullying happened in an NFL locker room has some scratching their heads, asking “Really?” This is a sport filled with big, tough, grown up men whose job it is to hit other big, tough grown up men with their bodies. Both the bully and the bullied each weigh more than 300 pounds. “Get over it,” some argued, especially most of the fellow NFL players who weighed in with their opinions. “That’s just what we do,” they protested. “It’s our way. You don't understand.”
But then read the transcript of the voicemail that the football bully left for his victim and the ugliness of it becomes clearer. Here’s the gist of it, heavily edited.
"Hey, wassup, you half [racial slur] piece of ----. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks….I'm going to slap your ----ing mouth. I'm going to slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. ---- you, you're still a rookie. I'll kill you."
Sounds like your basic bully to me, regardless of the supposed acceptability of that threat, rationalized because it happened within the testosterone filled private fraternity of professional sports. I don’t buy that flimsy excuse.
Bullying is just bullying. Period. In a locker room. In a classroom. In a workplace. Yes, even in a church sometimes. Bullying. A boss against an underling. The oversized middle school kid against her smaller classmate. An abusive husband against his wife.
I don’t know what makes me most angry about this story. There's the bullying itself, which feels so engrained in our world, especially among kids. Straights against gays. Jocks against unpopular kids. I was bullied through middle school. I remember how lonely and utterly dispiriting it was to be excluded, targeted, and pushed around. Bullying is never harmless or “just a joke” or innocent. There is always a devastating and often lasting emotional toll on the victim.
Then there’s the multitude of ways folks can bully each other now. Long gone are the days when the only place a person might fear a bully was face to face: on the playground or at the bus stop or in a workplace. Now bullies work in cyberspace. Read some of the nasty, rude, stupid, awful, hateful comments on Facebook. There’s bullying by texting too. In cyber society anything goes, a perfect setting for bullying, anonymous and almost wholly unmonitored.
Bullying can even be deadly. Twelve year old Rebecca Sedwick of Lakeland, Florida committed suicide last month after being cyber-bullied by two classmates for two years. Rebecca left school, tried her best to start new. Her parents tried their best to protect her. But her attackers were unrelenting and pursued her, and yes they were middle school girls too, who now may end up being charged with a crime. Or ask any gay or lesbian teen, prime targets for bullies. They go through social hell regardless of how “enlightened” we like to imagine the world has become.
I just don’t get bullying. Never have. Never will. My faith in God and common human decency tells me that to bully another human being is in some ways the worst sin of all, because it is inherently unfair, mismatched, and cruel. How hard is it for the big to hurt the little, or the underdog to be pushed aside by a big man on campus?
I wish I had the answer as to why bullying is still so common. Is it just human nature for the powerful to always target the powerless? Is it the violent spirit which marks the United States, a nation with almost as many guns (270 million) as people (314 million)? Is it our no holds barred mass media? One mouse click and a kid can see the most abhorrent, obscene, and violent of images, words, ideas. Is it our mega-competitive society with so many kids and adults playing and watching sports, all the time, with just one goal--to always win, right?
There is hope. Parents, teachers, students and administrators are much more enlightened about bullying than when I was young. Most schools have anti-bullying programs in place. More and more kids are learning how to constructively confront bullying and stick up for their classmates.
So maybe this tale of NFL bullying will have a good ending. Maybe by being discussed and disseminated so widely, this story will help us finally see bullying for what it always has been. Unequivocally, undoubtedly, and absolutely wrong in all circumstances. Doesn’t make a difference if it’s between two pro athletes or two kids.
Bullying. No excuse for it. None. End of discussion.