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Bullying: Taking Off the Kid Gloves
Sordid details continue to emerge in the harrowing tale of Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. As has recently been widely reported, Richie Incognito, a nine-year veteran guard for the Miami Dolphins, has been suspended indefinitely from the NFL for conduct detrimental to the team. Incognito is alleged to have verbally, and perhaps even physically, harassed fellow teammate and second year offensive tackle Jonathan Martin.
Amid the numerous reports of mistreatment, a disturbing voicemail message which Incognito left for Martin has been released, as well as a nasty text message. Suffice it so say, this forum is not the appropriate one in which to reproduce those messages. Violent threats, sexual innuendo, and racist slurs all rear their ugly heads in these vile revelations.
Many have employed the term “bullying” in discussing this incident. Incognito himself is being referred to as a “bully,” and his behavior – as “bullying.” Some might scoff at the suggestion that this has anything to do with school bullying, as though the term should only be reserved for elementary school playgrounds. A myriad of dismissive explanations might be offered as to why the Incognito-Martin story is not one of bullying: it is a story involving adults; this is simply the culture of the NFL locker room; Incognito himself denies the allegations. And the list goes on.
People who make such claims are wrong. They are gravely mistaken. And their willingness to brush away this story with a cavalier wave of the hand belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what bullying is and what can be done to stop it. In fact, the Incognito-Martin scandal offers many important lessons, especially for educators.
Here is why this story in absolutely one of bullying, and what we as educators can learn from it:
1. Not Just for Kids – Bullying is not simply an elementary, middle school, or even high school phenomenon. It can occur in many different environments and at all ages. Bosses can bully employees, and neighbors can bully neighbors; adults engage in bullying behavior, too. It’s a human social phenomenon, wherein one person abusively exerts power or control over a more vulnerable person. Understanding that bullying is common to all ages highlights the psychological factor that is at play. When we understand that, we can get to the root of the problem. Bullying often has to do with what is going on inside of the bully’s head, which is what leads him or her to this destructive behavior in the first place. Whether it is a 12 year old or a 32 year old, real work needs to be done to help the bully uncover the motivation behind his acts. At times this may even involve a mental health professional. Only then can he fully take responsibility for his actions and begin to change.
2. Texting – The ubiquity of cell phones and smart phones among adolescents and even some children opens up a whole new arena in which bullying can occur. As Incognito’s text message demonstrates, bullying need not be done in the actual presence of the victim in order for it to cause tremendous pain. We need to educate our kids about the power of the written word – even when delivered with brevity via a text message.
3. Role of Supervisors – Speculation persists as to how much the Dolphins coaches knew, how much the general manager knew, and how much the owners knew. These are all important questions. Whether it is an NFL locker room, an office, a classroom, or a playground, those individuals who are in a position of leadership carry the responsibility to monitor social interactions to the best of their ability, and to step in when needed.
4. The Gray Zone- Occasionally, the dynamic between bully and victim plays out as unambiguously as a cheesy Hollywood script. There’s the big bad bully, and the helpless, innocent victim. Back in real life, however, things are not usually quite so black and white. Sometimes the victim is not 100% innocent. Or, like in this NFL story, the alleged bully claims that he and the victim were very good friends, and the victim must have misunderstood his words. While it’s important for teachers to appreciate the complexity of a given situation, they must also never be misled by empty excuses or irrelevant diversions from the fundamental issues.
5. Fresh set of Eyes – Social environments tend to develop their own ethos and cultural assumptions. Some have made the claim that this sort of behavior of Incognito is simply standard NFL conduct in the locker room. It’s how rookies and young players are toughened up and whipped into shape. This story reminds us that when trapped by one’s own narrow experiences, all sorts of things can become the norm. Sometimes it takes a third party observer to note that a certain mode of behavior or speech is in fact out of line. Regardless of accepted communal assumptions, if one individual feels threatened, action must be taken to protect that individual.
Teachers and administrators would be wise to raise this real-life example of bullying in their classrooms. Discuss with your students if they think this is an incident of bullying. Ask them what they would do if they saw something like this going on in their own classroom community. Generate with them what they can learn from this story. If it helps avoid another Jonathan Martin, it is well worth it.