By Marc H. Morial
“Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can take the form of physical contact, words or more subtle actions.” American Psychological Association
When 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick jumped to her death from an abandoned concrete plant tower on September 9 because of bullying from her classmates, the world stood up and took notice. While some teen-on-teen bullying was once accepted as a rite of passage, we now know it can have deadly consequences and is being taken more seriously today. The same cannot be said about adult-on-adult bullying, which though possibly just as harmful, is a much less highlighted 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.
First, it must be said that 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, including Incognito’s alleged use of the N-word.
Incognito’s words and actions caused Martin to abruptly 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.
Attitudes on the team and within the football fraternity are split, with many of the team’s Black players even defending Incognito and criticizing Martin for breaking a code of silence. Some of this may be because as a Stanford grad and the son of Harvard-educated parents, Martin does not fit the traditional tough football player mold.
As Jason Reid wrote recently in the Washington Post, “To African Americans on the Dolphins, Martin was a 6-foot-5, 312 pound oddball because his life experience was radically different from theirs. 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, but what concerns me more than the particulars of this incident 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?
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.