What Parents and Coaches Can Learn from the NFL Bullying Scandal

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Nov. 6 2013 4:07 PM

When It’s Your Kid in the Locker Room

What parents and coaches can learn from the NFL bullying scandal.

Joe Philbin
Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin yells at his players. What are the lessons here for parents who think there could be an Incognito, or a malevolent locker room, in their kids’ lives?

Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

Two explanations are surfacing for the intimidation, bullying, and exclusion that Jonathan Martin reportedly had to deal with while playing for the Miami Dolphins. The first is that the coaches stay out of the locker room in the NFL, leaving a vacuum for the veterans to fill. This is bad news when the vet who steps in is the biggest jerk on the team, like Richie Incognito, the accused ringleader in the Martin brouhaha, who was suspended from the team indefinitely this week. The second explanation is that the Dolphins coaches actually asked Incognito to “toughen up” Martin after he missed two days of voluntary (but strongly encouraged) workouts. Incognito took that directive too far, but the coaches were the instigators.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

Both could be true. The coaches could mostly stay out of the players’ dealings with each other. And they could also have tapped Incognito to bring along a younger player and unintentionally (or intentionally) given him license to exercise the worst kind of influence. What are the lessons here for coaching kids, especially boys—and for parents who think there could be an Incognito, or a malevolent locker room, in their kids’ lives?

Rosalind Wiseman’s new book Masterminds and Wingmen is packed with good advice about raising boys. Wiseman interviewed more than 160 real boys in the writing of the book, and their pragmatic, tell-it-like-it-is fingerprints are all over it, in the best possible way. She is the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, the chronicle of mean girl antics on which Tina Fey’s Mean Girls is based. It is a happy development for parents of boys (me included) that she has turned her attention XY-ward.

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Wiseman’s take on sports (especially in the playground) is that it’s the venue in which kids really learn what school, and I’d say life, is about. “Play, as it should be, is filled with messy social dynamics, power struggles, and conflicts,” she writes. It’s when the roles crystallize that Wiseman gets concerned: There is a danger in having a permanent Mastermind, who manipulates the action from above, the Bouncer, who plays enforcer, the Associate, who aids and abets (actively or passively), and the Punching Bag. As for team sports, Wiseman begins with this observation: “I think what’s shocking for many of us is how something so incredibly positive can metamorphose into something that’s its complete opposite.”

When things go south, the first place to look is the coach. What conditions is he or she creating, deliberately or not? Wiseman gave me this classic scenario, from a man who remembered being the target of cruelty and some brutality on his high school team: “The thing that made the biggest impact on him was when the coach would say ‘stop messing around’ and walk out, knowing full well what would happen when he turned his back. That was the moment he knew he could never tell when he was being assaulted and horribly hazed.” Wiseman pointed out that on the Dolphins, it sounds like “Incognito is the bouncer. The rule enforcer. The coach sounds like the Mastermind: do this to reinforce the group dynamic, and a sense of forced loyalty. The problem being that it’s based on fear and abusive power, not team camaraderie.”

OK, so that’s a good one to put on the coaching don’t list—don’t turn your back when shit may be going down and breathe a quiet sigh of relief when the Bouncer takes the fall. Or, if the problem is that you’re truly unaware, you are not doing your job. Wiseman is also helpful on how parents can talk to coaches without making their kids feel like snitches. I’m keeping this line from her script on file: “Brian didn’t want me to talk to you about this because he thinks you’ll be angry with him. But I know you care about these boys, so I was willing to take that chance.”

What about the point of view of the Associate, who, in Wiseman’s schematic, either goes along with the hazing or just watches and lets it happen? Wiseman urges talking to your kid in advance about a realistic scenario offered up by what we know about Martin’s trouble with the Dolphins: “Even if you believe Martin wasn’t part of the team the way he should have been, what’s the way in which you would bring that person in?” She continues, “One of the most difficult situations on a team, which kids can relate to the most, is when challenging the group feels like losing or threatening your identity. High school kids get so worried about this. For them, it’s ‘This is who I am. I am a football player. I am a soccer player.’ So this is your opportunity to talk about that sense of identity, and what’s the cost you’re willing to pay? Is it possible to keep your identity—to stay on the team—but to do it in a different way?”

Good coaches and team experiences, after all, “motivate the best in boys by appealing to the best in Boy World, the intense desire in boys to be recognized for bravery and hard work.” That is a far cry from the telling moment that apparently pushed Martin to walk out and leave the Dolphins: a lunch room “prank” in which everyone sitting at a table stood up when he sat down. If that sounds trivial to you, think about the psychological power of exclusion. It can really get to you. Even if you’re a 300-pound NFL lineman.

So here’s the possible silver lining: As sports commentators earnestly dissect team dynamics, and hold the locker room up to the light, the NFL has a chance to lead.

“Athletics has allowed this kind of cruelty and hazing to happen forever,” says the University of Nebraska-Lincoln educational psychologist Susan Swearer. “It’s almost like the last bastion of condoned bullying. This is an important wake up call. The NFL has started showing leadership on concussion research. Maybe it can now lead on bullying and harassment and discrimination, by really creating some programming for coaches and athletes in high schools. Many schools struggle with this for lack of funding. Well, professional football could certainly help with that.”

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