We talk about it all. the. time.
We say it until we're blue in the face. We talk to our kids. Schools talk to our kids. Public officials, celebrities, you name it. Everyone encourages young people not to bully. Bullying is not okay. Bullying is mean. Bullying can truly hurt others and can sometimes produce horrific consequences.
But what about adults?
I've seen plenty of adult bullying. I've seen it in person. I've seen it online. I watched as Twitter exploded on the young woman who dressed as a Boston Marathon bombing victim and the young man who wore blackface and dressed as Trayvon Martin for Halloween. Yes, what they did was beyond wrong and it wasn't smart. It didn't, however, give anyone reason to make death threats to them or their families or to encourage them to kill themselves. There's no reason to ever take it that extra step. Yet, that's what many people do, and it's often overlooked.
Now, I sit here and I read about this happening in a NFL team locker room.
Male sports locker rooms have always been notorious for their "macho" environments. A certain amount of hazing or teasing is deemed acceptable within these walls and among teammates. However, what happens when this teasing turns into something that's far worse -- such is the case with Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito? What happens when teasing turns into harassment and bullying? What happens when threats are made and racial slurs are used? What happens when someone suffers an emotional breakdown over words or gestures they've received from another? What then?
I've seen a wide range of responses from the masses on this topic, with most agreeing this sort of behavior is wrong and punishable. However, I've also seen those who believe that we've become "too soft." They believe that Martin should "stick up for himself" and handle this "like a man."
We spend a great deal of time talking about young people bullying one another, yet we rarely discuss adult bullying. Maybe it's because people think that bullying doesn't happen to adults. (Wrong.) Or maybe people think that adults are strong enough to handle what others say about them or do to them. (Wrong again.) Whatever the case may be, it has nothing to do with age or strength or gender. Bullying should be unacceptable across the board, but this point seems to get lost in the shuffle. We have forgotten that no one is immune to it, not even star athletes. We have forgotten that it's often impossible to stand up to our bullies, even when we're grown, for fear of retribution. Just imagine what the fear of retribution must have felt like in an NFL locker room, where men are perceived as indestructible and "too tough" to let the words of another get through their thick skin.
The lesson here is that it doesn't matter if we are a 12-year-old kid riding the school bus or a 6'4", 320 pound offensive tackle for a professional football team. We are all still human. We are all destructible. And we can all easily be broken, whether it's by sticks and stones or by words.
My heart breaks for Martin. It breaks for the months of hell that he endured from Incognito behind closed doors up to this point. It breaks for now, for the sudden onslaught of those who feel they know how he should (or shouldn't) have handled this situation. None of us are him. None of us know the pressures that may have been on him to stay quiet or deal with it himself. We will never know what this felt like. Whatever he felt, however he felt, is valid.
My heart breaks for Incognito, too. It breaks that no one taught him better. It breaks that he didn't have the guidance and encouragement to treat others with love and respect. It breaks that there are children who may see what he's done and perhaps think it's okay to say and do the same. Because this is where and how they grasp it. This is how kids learn to bully. Maybe this is a wake-up call for where bullying prevention needs to hit next: the voices of those who are louder and respected enough to influence. The voices that children hear and repeat.
The voices of the adults.