brucekluger.com

    USA Today, November 13, 2013

    Use NFL to help fight bullying
    Bullying is bullying, whether in the schoolyard or the locker room.

    By Bruce Kluger


    In recent years, we’ve
    been reading a lot about
    the ever escalating crisis
    of teenage bullying in this
    country; and if there is
    one common theme that’s
    recurred, it’s that adults
    must become more
    engaged in the process if
    we ever hope to stop
    bullying in its tracks.

    But what happens if
    everyone involved—from
    the bully to the bullied to
    the bystander—is already
    a grown-up?

    That’s what been going on in the National Football League, as painfully illustrated
    by the Miami Dolphins scandal, where 319-pound guard Richie Incognito has been
    suspended on allegations of bullying fellow offensive lineman Jonathan Martin, who
    has left the team.

    Incognito, a 30-year-old NFL veteran with an unsettling history of dirty play, verbal
    abuse, repeated fines and serial suspensions, was reportedly relentless in his cruel
    treatment of Martin—from name-calling and public humiliation, to sending racist
    texts and voice messages, to threatening to kill him.

    Predictably, the unfolding drama has become fodder for an unending wave of news
    columns and editorials, all of them calling for a fresh look at the culture of
    professional athletics in order to get to the bottom of this troubling new event.

    But that’s the irony: there’s nothing remotely new about any of this. It’s just plain,
    old-fashioned bullying, transplanted into the bodies of oversized, overpaid athletes
    who genuinely believe they can get away with it.

    And yet there is one difference: Unlike with schoolyard bullying—where parents,
    teachers and bystanders can effectively reverse a dangerous situation, and
    sometimes do—in the NFL, the coaches, managers and owners who are charged
    with maintaining peace within their teams are often making the problem worse.

    “Coaches could care less about what happens in the locker room because they
    have a job to do and we have a job to do,” veteran NFL defensive end Trevor
    Pryce told The New York Times. “We play for the highest bidder. Allegiances are
    very temporary. To some extent, the inmates run the asylum. The coaches have a
    lot of other things to deal with.”

    The Incognito-Martin faceoff so blatantly fits the classic bullying scenario that it’s
    practically cliché. Incognito is white, Martin is black; Incognito has been playing with
    the NFL since 2005, Martin is a rookie; Incognito was allegedly bullied as a child for
    his weight, Martin is the son of Harvard grads and a conscientious student who
    majored in the classics at Stanford. And, most tellingly, Incognito was reportedly a
    ringleader in the kind of adolescent and vicious behavior, from hazing to physical
    violence, that has historically lurked behind the scenes at the NFL—behavior that is
    not one iota different from the pushing and shoving and online gang-ups that have
    fallen upon the children in our communities.

    And that’s how we should respond to this disturbing story: instead of interpreting
    the Dolphins debacle as some new kind of outbreak that has begun to dominate the
    highly charged, highly lucrative realm of professional sports, let’s just reframe it as
    one more strain of an old disease.

    Helping children to understand bullying, say the experts at StopBullying.gov, is the
    surest way to prevent it; and that can be accomplished by checking in with them,
    listening to them, knowing their friends and understanding their concerns; and,
    most important, keeping the lines of communication open. So starting this Sunday
    afternoon, let’s use this opportunity to renew our conversations with our kids about
    bullying. If you enjoy watching the games as a family—or even if you don’t—let’s
    remind our children that:

    ► Size doesn’t matter. When it comes to bullies, there’s no
    difference between a little girl or a teenage boy or a 300-pound
    lineman. Cruelty is cruelty.

    ► Whether it’s in the schoolyard or in a professional locker
    room, a bystander is a bystander, and it is his or her responsibility
    to help stop bullying as it’s happening. Not stepping in contributes
    to the problem.

    ► Regardless of how brilliant he may be on the field—or how
    many Super Bowl rings he has on his fingers—a bully is never a
    hero. Ever.

    Like most people involved in the fight against bullying, I hope this story continues to
    play out in the media. The more attention that’s brought to person-against-person
    torment, the more we may begin to loosen the tight knot that’s been choking the
    humanity out of our kids.

    But let’s stop calling this a new story—because it isn’t one.


    (Photograph Lynne Sladky, AP)