When 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick jumped to her death from an abandoned concrete plant tower in early September after intense bullying by two other girls, it made headlines around the world.
While some teen-on-teen bullying was once accepted as a rite of passage, we now know it can have deadly consequences. Today, schools, the media, and families are all taking it more seriously, including the role that adults sometimes play in stalking teens and tweens.
What about adult-on-adult bullying? While possibly just as harmful, it’s a less prominent and much more complex story. Consider the current case of alleged bullying by white Miami Dolphins lineman, Richie Incognito, against his black teammate, Jonathan Martin.
Yes, a certain amount of hazing is part of football locker room culture. Playful teasing, mild insults, and innocent pranks are commonplace among both white and black football players at all levels, from high school to the pros. For the most part, this has been viewed as acceptable and even beneficial team-building behavior in the high testosterone world of male competitive sports.
But every person and every football player is different. Not all are comfortable with locker room roughhousing and crude language, especially when it crosses the line into racial slurs. Incognito has acknowledged leaving a voicemail for Martin in which he used the N word, threatened to kill Martin, and threatened to slap Martin’s mother.
Incognito’s words and actions caused Martin to leave the team and seek counseling. Incognito has been indefinitely suspended by the Miami Dolphins and the NFL is conducting an investigation of the matter, which involves other members of the team.
“Beyond the well-publicized voice mail with its racial epithet, Jonathan endured a malicious physical attack on him by a teammate, and daily vulgar comments,” Martin’s lawyer said in a statement that featured a sample (and unprintable) text.
Attitudes on the team and within the football fraternity are split, with many of the Dolphins’ black players even defending Incognito and criticizing Martin for breaking a code of silence. Some of this may be due to the fact that, as a Stanford grad and the son of Harvard-educated parents, Martin doesn’t fit the traditional tough football player mold.
“To African Americans on the Dolphins, Martin was a 6-foot-5, 312 pound oddball because his life experience was radically different from theirs,” Jason Reid wrote recently in The Washington Post. “It’s an old story among African Americans. Too often, instead of celebrating what makes us different and learning from each other, we criticize more educated or affluent African Americans for not keeping it real.”
How this turns out is anybody’s guess. What concerns me more than the incident’s particulars is the larger message it sends about setting and honoring racial and other boundaries of respect in the schoolyard, at the workplace, and in public discourse.
Nearly every state has mandated measures to prevent bullying in our schools and more attention is being paid to cyber bullying.
But name-calling still too often takes the place of civil discourse in public debates. “Attack ads” have become a staple of political campaigns and the “comments” section on many newspapers and blogs are filled with hateful speech.
In addition, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, about 35 percent of U.S. workers say they are bullied on their jobs. As the NFL and the Miami Dolphins decide the fates of Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, we must all ask ourselves: Is America becoming a nation of bullies?