Right now, the NFL is abuzz. Over Peyton Manning’s potentially record-setting year and the oh-so-disappointing Washington Redskins, yes, but the dominant story concerns a subject that doesn’t usually gain much traction in the most macho league in American professional sports: bullying.
It all started on October 28, when Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin left the team under mysterious circumstances. They didn’t stay mysterious for long: It quickly came out that Martin had been driven to severe emotional distress—to the point of checking himself into a hospital—by pranks and verbal abuse coming mostly from his teammate and fellow offensive lineman Richie Incognito, a hulking man-child (if this seems like an overly colorful definition, watch this YouTube video, which features some salty language) who has a reputation as one of the dirtiest players in the league.
Not long after Martin’s departure, which continues to this day (he is likely done playing for the Dolphins), Incognito was suspended indefinitely, and in the ensuing fallout the media shined a bright spotlight on the Dolphins’ locker room. Reports have swirled that Incognito regularly targeted Martin with verbal harassment, some of it violent and racist; that Martin was pressured into contributing $15,000 for a team trip to Las Vegas he had no interest in joining; and that his departure was precipitated by a puerile prank in which other members of the team refused to sit with him in the cafeteria.
Key to this strategy is the realization that kids may not care what "people," in a vague sense, think of a given sort of action, but they do care what their immediate peers think.
(It should be pointed out that Incognito shot back with the claim that Martin threatened his family in a text message and that this was all just playful banter between the two men that has been blown out of proportion, but Martin’s lawyer and half the Internet quickly pointed out that when Martin sent his threatening text he was parroting an Internet meme.)
All of this, of course, has been irresistible fodder for the bloggers and talking heads on ESPN and other sports outlets, and as a result battle lines have been drawn in the public debate: It’s those who claim there’s something wrong with the “culture” or “atmosphere” of the Dolphins’ locker room (and, perhaps, many others in the league) versus those who claim that Martin couldn’t take a joke and wasn’t tough enough for the NFL life.
It would be easy for the casual observer, particularly a non-sports fan, to tune all of this out: Who cares if overgrown jocks are pranking each other? But that would be a shame, because this ongoing scandal highlights many difficult, counterintuitive dynamics of bullying. If we could cut through the media cacophony, through all the muscleheads making impassioned defenses of “warrior culture,” a high-profile case like this could serve as a valuable lesson for school administrations and others. Most bullying victims, after all, aren’t Jonathan Martin—they can’t simply storm out of school, attracting media attention to their plight.
I sent an email to Hana Shepherd, a Rutgers University researcher who along with Princeton University’s Elizabeth Levy Paluck ran an anti-bullying intervention called the Roots Program in 56 New Jersey middle schools last years, to get her thoughts on the Martin case and what it can tell us about how to fight bullying. (Full disclosure: Shepherd co-taught a required psychology course I took during my public-policy grad school days at the Woodrow Wilson School.)
Shepherd and Paluck’s work (the results of which they’re starting to write up) focused on using students, particularly influential members of schools’ social networks, to change social norms and patterns of behavior in schools. One important problem she and Paluck face in their schools is not that most kids support bullying, but that most kids think most kids support bullying.
“This is the quintessential pluralistic ignorance effect—everyone, or many people, privately disagree with something (or supports something), but sees everyone else participating or complying, so assumes that everyone supports it,” she wrote. So it may well be that many in the Dolphins’ locker room didn’t enjoy Incognito’s antics (for what it’s worth, an unscientific ESPN survey of NFL players indeed suggests that more are sympathetic to Martin than Incognito), but thought that they were in line with a socially accepted culture of macho “comradery” (or hazing), and therefore felt that speaking out could threaten their social standing.
Pivoting off of this, Shepherd and Paluck are hoping to simply make bullying less socially acceptable in their schools. “A premise of our work is that changing students’ perceptions of norms—what everyone in the group believes is socially acceptable—can profoundly impact the amount of peer harassment and bullying,” Shepherd wrote, “and that this is a crucial pressure point that interventions should target.”
Key to this strategy is the realization that kids may not care what “people,” in a vague sense, think of a given sort of action, but they do care what their immediate peers think, particularly those who are the most visible and influential. Translating this to the NFL, Shepherd wrote that “players probably care much more when there is evidence that players on their own team (vs. NFL-wide) don’t support the kind of behavior Incognito engaged in—their own teammates are the ones they have to interact with every day, and respond to most immediately.” (In this sense, the endless and oftentimes macho commentary from former and current NFL players about “locker room culture” is actually rather important.)
That’s why the most common solution proposed to these problems—assemblies, presentations, and other anti-bullying educational programming—can backfire. Shepherd cited a litany of reasons why NFL teams might want to think twice about simply packing their players into a film room to teach them about bullying:
There are a number of real drawbacks to interventions like assemblies or trainings. First, they assume that giving people information once is sufficient to affect behavior in the long term and across many situations. There is lots of evidence that what really affects behavior are situation- or context-specific cues, so reminders or behavioral strategies for the exact situations where hazing or bullying is most likely to occur. Assemblies or trainings often don’t provide those types of strategies. Also, these types of initiatives are often one-off deals, which are rarely effective in affecting sustained behavior change. Often assemblies or trainings are led by outsiders who may not be seen as legitimate figures for addressing the problem by the target audience. At least in schools, assemblies often provide an opportunity for students to make fun of the event—kids roll their eyes, make jokes, don’t pay attention—which conveys to other students that the norm in the school is not to take the content of the assembly seriously. This isn’t the case with all assemblies, of course, but there is a real danger that they can backfire by giving the target audience the impression that no one takes challenges to the behavior that is trying to be changed seriously, thus further spreading the perception that the norm in the group is to support, or at least not challenge, hazing and harassment.
What does work, then? It largely comes down to positive and negative social feedback, to how we perceive our peers responding to our behavior. While cautioning that “not all behavior can be addressed through social pressure,” Shepherd wrote that “If Incognito was receiving absolutely no social support for what he was doing, where no one gave him a high five after a dirty hit, and no one laughed when he said threatening things in the locker room, then it seems highly unlikely that he would have kept doing those things.” The fact that he has been such a jerk for such a long time means that it’s quite likely “that the behaviors of other team members and maybe coaching or admin staff, however subtle, created the conditions for that kind of behavior to persist.”
That might be the most important takeaway here. As Shepherd put it, “it takes a village to create a bully.” Many of Incognito’s defenders are pointing to the fact that some of his teammates have come forward to speak out on his behalf. But that’s not proof he wasn’t a bully—it’s proof that the NFL, or at least some of its locker rooms, are places where no one stands up to bullying, where it’s allowed to fester and metastasize.
School administrators looking to their own locker rooms—and libraries and classrooms and cafeterias—would do well to heed this lesson.