Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Bully Pulpit

Why can't someone at Rutgers win a Nobel Prize? Whenever my alma mater is in the news it's about a student committing suicide because his homophobic roommate spied on him via webcam or because the University paid Snooki $32,000 for a student center speaking engagement. Today it's a video of Rutgers men's basketball coach, Mike Rice screaming gay slurs at players, hurling basketballs at their heads, and generally acting like a total tool. In case you don't want to watch the whole thing, here's a still from the video:

Rice is in the black shorts, pushing the player.

I've never played men's varsity basketball at a collegiate level, so I'm not the best judge of whether this behavior is in the normal realm for this arena. But, I did go to law school and even thought I only have vague memories of first year, I'm pretty sure I saw some examples of intentional torts in the video. Also, here's what LeBron James (who knows waaaay more about basketball than I do) tweeted:

Even though it's slightly unclear from James's tweet, I'm pretty sure he's "gone whoop on" the coach and not his son. I'm learning that Twitter's brevity sometimes leads to confusion.  My favorite tweet on the subject from some random guy on Twitter:

I know, right?

In the video, Rice looks like a bully with some major anger management issues. Bullying has been on my mind lately because I just read the book, Wonder in which some fifth graders bully and ostracize a classmate who has facial deformities. I know it sounds like a rip-off of Mask, but trust me the book is really well-written and powerful. I'm slightly embarrassed to say that I heard about the book from the Girl, because her third grade teacher is reading the book aloud to the class. Yes, it's a YA book, but so are The Hunger Games and the Twilight series, so don't let that stop you. Thanks to Amazon we can all order young adult books for our grownup selves to read and no one has to know.

In the past, people just seemed to think that bullying was just another rite of passage. If you've seen Dazed and Confused, you know what I mean.

Parker Posey, and the greatest widow's peak in Hollywood, likes her freshman with ketchup.

Ben Affleck likes his frosh whipped. 
I guess we just had bigger issues like the Vietnam War and political espionage and bad fashion to worry about kids spraying flour on younger kids. At some point, we decided that this was not okay and now we've reached a point where school districts, states, and even the federal government are enacting legislation to identify and prevent bullying. Obviously, I'm against bullying, but I have to question whether more legislation will mean fewer bullying incidents. For one thing, most people think that bullying, like pornography, may be difficult to define, but "you know it when you see it." I'm not so sure that is true.

Because I had a hazy distinction in my mind about what makes bullying different from your run-of-the-mill playground altercation, I searched the Internet for a uniform definition of bullying. It turns out that bullying is defined differently by different school districts and in different state codes. However, a definition from (of all places) the GAO was helpful in explaining the typical factors. Bullying is different from fighting because it has the following characteristics: an intent to cause harm, repetition, and an imbalance of power. I'm sure that the "intent to cause harm" is the kind of intent than can be inferred by the bully's actions. Like, if you hurl a basketball at some one's head in anger, it's hard to argue that you didn't intend to cause harm because everyone knows that it is potentially harmful to throw a basketball at some one's head. The harm doesn't have to be physical, of course. Name calling, threats, taunts, spreading rumors and ostracizing are all ways of harming some one in a non-physical way.

The element of repetition shows that there is a pattern of conduct by the bully and that it's not a one-off argument over who would win a fight between a zombie and a vampire. So, if you show up to basketball practice every day and every day your coach screams at you and pushes you and grabs your jersey, this demonstrates a pattern of bullying. This repetition is one of the things that makes bullying so damaging. When a bully establishes a pattern of conduct, the victim's anticipation and fear of the next cruelty becomes part of the psychological harm.   
The last element, the imbalance of power, can be the most difficult to discern. When the victim is a player and the bully is a coach or if a the victim is an employee and the bully is the employer, the imbalance is innate. Or, when a victim is being bullied because of his race or sexual orientation or because of a handicap the imbalance of power is obvious. But, it seems like the kids who get the worst of the bullying aren't in one of those vulnerable groups, they're just normal kids who have been singled out by their peers for some other reason: Maybe these kids appear to be weak, maybe they get upset easily and the bullies like to see their reactions, maybe they're smaller or taller or fatter or skinnier than average. Then the definition of bullying kind of folds back on itself because it's the bullying itself that provides the evidence of the imbalance of power.

Another complication arises when the context of the behavior makes it unclear if the behavior is bullying or within the bounds of the activity. For instance, I know a little boy who was picked on by a couple of classmates and even though the victim was pushed, hit, kicked, and verbally insulted on a regular basis, the teacher wrote it off as "boy play." It wasn't until those bullies picked on a little girl in the class in the same manner, that they were reprimanded and suspended. Changing the victim from a boy to a girl seemed to trigger in the teacher that final element, the imbalance of power, for it to be taken seriously. The boy victim was glad that the bullies were punished, but he couldn't understand why they were punished for hurting the girl and not for hurting him. 

Sports are another area in which allowances are granted for behavior that wouldn't be acceptable in real life. Bobby Knight, the former Indiana Hoosiers basketball coach was throwing chairs and screaming at players for years before he was fired for choking a player and other infractions. 

Sure, I'd be proud to autograph a picture of me
throwing a chair. No problem!
It's also probable that Knight's winning record was a factor in Indiana putting up with his outrageous behavior. As my Twitter friend Tim Materson suggested, the same behavior becomes intolerable more quickly when the coach has a losing record. 

I hate to point out the problems with anti-bullying legislation without offering any solutions, but I have to admit that I don't have a solution, either. I think that introducing books like Wonder into grade school curriculum is a good step in making kids understand what bullying is all about. Fostering empathy to prevent bullying seems like a better idea than punishing the behavior after it happens. Also, teachers need to treat combative, disruptive behavior between kids as pre-bullying. Maybe it's a case of boys being boys, or it's a one-time altercation, or maybe a mean kid has identified a good target for bullying. Once a bully has discovered a good victim, the bully can do a lot of damage before a teacher notices a pattern of behavior. I also think we should reduce the emphasis on the power imbalance between the bully and the victim. If one kid is being mean to another kid, assume that a power imbalance of some kind preceded the behavior. Kids can find all sorts of frailties in each other that we, as adults, can't see. Some of the kids adults find most delightful are exactly the kids that other kids find most annoying.    

The universal outrage over Mike Rice's behavior makes me optimistic that we are moving in the right direction. This gives me hope that such overtly abusive behavior won't be tolerated. Although I'm pleased with Rutgers's decision to fire Rice, I wonder why it took so long. Given Rutgers's recent history, and specifically the Tyler Clementi case, I am surprised that the Athletic Director, Tim Pernetti did not have the good judgment to fire Mike Rice immediately after viewing the video in December. Rutgers is a very diverse school and when I went there I felt like the students were accepting of all different types of people. As an alumna, it bothers me that it is now best known as a place where your roommate will live tweet your same-sex encounter and the basketball coach screams homophobic slurs at his players.  

While Rutgers cleans up its image, we can all work on being kinder to each other and making sure that kids know that bullying will not be tolerated. Do you all have any suggestions to prevent bullying?


  1. Great post. I think this Ted Talk and Shane Koyczan's viral videos are other good must sees to stop bullying.

    Mike Rice is a tool. Loser plus losing record. (Not that Bobby Knight was OK, but...) RU ashamed it took so long to fire this guy? I am.

    Love that Tweet!

    1. Yes! I loved that Ted Talk that you recommended. Koyczan is a great speaker. I wonder whether Tim Pernetti will lose his job. I vaguely remember him from Rutgers. He had aspirations even back then.

    2. I remember the name but not the person... was he around during our time... I guess yes.

  2. Something bullies should keep in the backs of their minds (but are too young and stupid to know): Be nice to nerds. You'll be working for one one day. I'm reading Wonder with jmb. We got sidetracked so I haven't gotten to the bullying part. Yuck.

    1. Good point! I don't know how you can read that book aloud. I read the birth scene with the farting nurse to the kids and ended up sobbing and unable to speak. They thought I was crazy.

  3. I think we need to be ever watchful that our own children, in addition to being bullied, could be the bullier.

    Also, I believe research shows one of the most effective interventions or disruptions is from a child bystander. We need to "empower" our children to intercede while remaing safe. ff adult help is needed, so be it.

    1. Yes, I've heard that interventions by child bystanders are the best way to stop bullying. But, gosh it's so hard for little kids to have that kind of courage. Even if they know what's right, it's scary to take a stand.

      I agree about watching your kids, as well. Of course, our tendency is to think the best about our own children, so it's hard to be objective. We definitely want to be part of the solution, not the problem.

  4. How sad it is that two state schools--Penn State and Rutgers--which have both achieved a high degree of academic excellence have been dragged down by athletic programs that, with their sense of entitlement and uncritical public support, feel immune from the ordinary restraints on unacceptable behavior that would not be tolerated in industry or even in the military.

    That a university's reputation for excellence in it's core mission--research and teaching--can be so easily tarnished by the failings of people in an activity which us peripheral to that core mssion is especially troubling.

    If you Google "Penn State" and get "sexual abuse" and "Rutgers" and come up with "bullying" things are really out of joint

    1. That's a really good point, especially about the fact that sports programs are tangental to the university's mission. I think the problem is that universities are pouring beaucoup dollars into athletics because success in sports boosts a school's image. The flip side of that is when something goes wrong in the athletic department it's a high-profile fail. Sadly, no one is paying as much attention to an economics professor screaming at students.