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We Live in the United States of Bullies

The NFL is not the exception, but the rule

Joel Auerbach/Getty

In a recent episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s web series, "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee," Chris Rock says he’s working on a bit about bullying. “Who’s gonna cure AIDS,” he says, laying out the joke. “Who’s gonna invent the fuel that gets us off fossil fuels? Some guy who was bullied, that’s who.” 

It’s funny, I guess, if utterly backwards. But it is also really telling that a guy who was beat up, spit on, and taunted as a child, as Rock was, is now extolling the virtues of intimidation, humiliation, and physical abuse—or at least joking about them, in a funny-but-true way. So well engrained in America's work ethos is the idea that bullying acts as a kind of threshing machine, like placement exams, and that the bullied are ultimately somehow beneficiaries in this transaction, that Rock needn’t even explain the joke for us to get it. We know what he means, that in our society we think of bullies as bouncers restricting access to certain spheres of the culture, testing our will to enter, challenging our resolve, our perseverance—or else redirecting us like Carroms into the arts and hard sciences, where we will discover that latent ambition for alternative energy exploration. 

But as anyone with a TV or a Twitter feed knows now, bullying is not some tough summer camp experience limited to our formative years of adolescence, but a facet of power politics affecting grown-ups in places as rarified and hardened as an NFL locker room. By leaving the Miami Dolphins last week and checking himself into a South Florida hospital for emotional distress—the result, reportedly, of harassment by teammate Richie Incognito and others—offensive lineman Jonathan Martin stirred up a national conversation about bullying, masculinity, and workplace safety. But in the surprise of hearing about a 300-pound football player bullied to the point of hospitalization, we've lost sight of the fact that intimidation, coercion, and abuse, usually dressed up as "tradition," isn’t institutional only in football, or even sports. Athletic bullying is likely different only in degree from that in any hierarchic structure in America. “There is no escape from Jock Culture,” Robert Lipsyte wrote in a 2011 article for The Nation. “In big business, medicine, the law, people will be labeled winners and losers, and treated like stars or slugs by coach-like authority figures who use shame and intimidation to achieve short-term results. Don’t think symphony orchestras, university philosophy departments and liberal magazines don’t often use such tactics.” 

But is it that American ethics are bending to accommodate the alpha-mentality of jocks, or are our sports merely a reflection of our broader being? We may look at Richie Incognito as some hideous anomaly, a creation of a barbaric community cut off from the rest of us, but in fact this now sensational news story is a perfect microcosm of something larger, something taken for granted throughout the culture. In football, the better players, as was Incognito before his suspension (a leader and a captain, as he keeps reminding us, not to mention a Pro Bowl selection last year), are treated differently by their coaches, by the media, by the administrators of the game—treated better, it hardly needs to be said. They are deferred to, and, like Nietzsche’s uber-men, who are above the laws of others, define their own master morality. To a large degree the leaders on a football team determine the modes of behavior, in the locker room, on the practice and playing fields. The “captains” of industry, military, and politics, of course, act in precisely the same way, and so there exists a rush to dominance, a pattern of bullying—hazing, fragging, call it what you will—for the bullies in every walk of life to affirm their alpha status, that they may dictate the morals of their culture, rather than be dictated to. 

And, ultimately, what Chris Rock gets so wrong about bullying—if we can take his joke as deadly serious, which it may well be—is just how exceptional his own response to it was. Rock implies that it somehow makes us better, tougher, more prepared for the world (as perhaps he believes it did him). All the evidence is to the contrary, that it is far more likely to perpetuate systems of abuse and violence, that it is capable of far greater harm than help. In other words, we don’t know that bullying will forge the next Nobel laureate, the next Marie Curie or Mark Zuckerberg. What we do know is that it directly led to Columbine and Newtown. (It's possible, if not likely, that Rock knows this all too well—that the joke's humor is darker than most of his audience realizes.) 

I happened to play football (in high school in Los Angeles and a 1AA college called Weber State), and was often, but not always, one of the team leaders and captains. I hated the power politics of the locker room—which, of course, doesn’t stop at just the locker room—where no threat to one’s manhood was unique, where challenges and ball-busting and yapping was a constant, where to admit to a girlfriend made her a target for theft, an opportunity for an act of emasculation. All of which is done with the complete sanction of the coaches, who were themselves bullies and the bullied, who similarly lacked real rituals of initiation and mistook systemic abuse for bonding, and who seem to think this behavior increases team togetherness or toughness. But if hazing, heckling, or taunts ever improved teammates’ camaraderie or chemistry, or made anyone tougher, I never saw it. Granted, I was never one of the fellas, never one of the towel-snapping, back-slapping guys. Me, I’m soft. I believe in the power of words, maybe too much. I hate confrontation, hate the cult of competitiveness, even hated the game once it stopped being one, once it stopped feeling like we were playing. 

So, imagine my surprise after leaving the game—after reading a history book or two, after watching a movie or two, after entering the real world—to find that our culture's obsession with badassery was inescapable, that war metaphors were everywhere. Imagine my disappointment, too, working in the rigid, browbeating hierarchies of restaurants, Hollywood sets, and later, corporations, to discover I’d never really left the culture of the locker room. The hardest part about watching a football game for me now (aside from knowing now the real toll of the carnage-as-entertainment) is seeing its reflection in the world that brackets it: the martial ambience, the jingoistic explosions around primetime games, and particularly the commercials telling us how to be men, what it means to be a man, always defining the terms along the lines of acquisition and conquest, as if a John Wayne worldview were the only one available. 

It may be impossible to escape Jock Culture because it is American Culture, and it may be impossible to root out bullying (or to ban football). But it is missing the point to view this Dolphins controversy as set apart, behind an orange and teal firewall, or to view football or even locker room behavior as somehow unique in our country. It is not. As long as our culture acts like a wolf pack, revering dominance, it will hail the alpha, and it will be ruled by intimidation and force, ruled by thugs who would make the world into their locker room—and who will do so under the banner of brotherhood and tradition. It may be impossible to change this culture without rewriting the entire system of reward in this country, without overthrowing the ol’ patriarchy itself. But imagine if we could use this one relatively inconsequential controversy to recognize the bullies in our own lives—indeed, in our own selves.