Memo to Sports Parents:
How To Hurt Bullied Schoolchildren
By Doug Abrams
On Friday night October 18, the powerhouse Aledo Bearcats improved their league-leading record to 7-0 by blanking the winless Western Hills Cougars, 91-0, in Texas 4-A high school football. A lopsided final score from Aledo’s stadium normally would not make news outside the state – or perhaps even inside much of the state because the Bearcats had blown out opponents all season. They were averaging nearly 70 points a game and had won each week by at least 41 points.
The Western Hills contest attracted national attention, however, for what happened after the game. In a formal written complaint filed with the Aledo school district, a Western Hills father charged Aledo coach Tim Buchanan with bullying the entire losing team. The father (who remained unnamed in the media) praised the winning players for their sportsmanship, but charged that “[w]e all witnessed bullying firsthand, it is not a pretty sight.” “Picking up my son from the fieldhouse after the game and taking him home was tough,” the complaint continued. “I did not know what to say . . . to explain the behavior of the Aledo coaches for not easing up when the game was in hand.”
Never mind that Buchanan appears to have eased up by playing his second- and third-stringers beginning in the second quarter, and by agreeing to a running clock in the second half. Never mind that no other Western Hills parent filed a bullying complaint. Never mind that no one could recall any legislator or school official, in Texas or anywhere else, ever suggest linking bullying to the score of a game. And never mind too that even Western Hills coach John Naylor did not fault Buchanan, whose squad, he said, “just plays hard. . . . They’re number one for a reason . . . . And they’re good sports . . . . [T]hat’s the way football is supposed to be played in Texas.”
Texas law requires public school districts to investigate every formal written bullying complaint. The Aledo district investigated this one, and found (as they should have) that the disappointed father’s complaint was baseless.
Educators, coaches, fans and others can discuss possible reasons and remedies for lopsided scores in football and other interscholastic sports. Football scores of 91-0 do not happen out of the blue, so perhaps Aledo and Western Hills should not have landed in the same division. Perhaps they should not have faced one another. Perhaps (and this is hotly debated) leagues should adopt formal mercy rules that accelerate or end games when the score gets out of hand. Questions concerning lopsided scores deserve close attention from schools, coaches and league officials, particularly in contact and collision sports such as football, where mismatches can pose serious safety concerns.
I am not writing here to explore reasons, remedies or mismatches, however. The frustrated father’s ill-conceived bullying complaint carries serious potential dangers that transcend one football game and interscholastic sports generally. This father recklessly trivialized efforts by Texas legislators and public school authorities to combat true bullying and cyberbullying, which victimizes nearly half the nation’s elementary and secondary students before they graduate. If written complaints like this one spread to other states, the real losers will be genuinely victimized students who sit in America’s classrooms each year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies the epidemic of school bullying and cyberbullying as a “serious public health problem,” a realistic assessment echoed by the American Medical Association and the National Institutes of Health. According to clinicians and medical researchers, “bullying” occurs when a student or group of students repeatedly cause intentional physical or emotional harm to another student in a relationship marked by imbalance in physical or emotional power. The harm may come from physical assault, words, ostracism, teasing or some combination. “Cyberbullying” occurs when students repeatedly target victims with threats, rumors, gossip or insults through email, instant messaging, blogs, cell phones, social networking sites, and even websites featuring the victim.
The “serious public health problem” makes the bruised egos of a football player and his father after a loss seem inconsequential, doesn’t it?
“Bullycide” and “Cyberbullycide”
Bullied and cyberbullied students typically face genuine physical and emotional scarring unknown to football players who happen to leave the gridiron some Friday night on the short end of a lopsided score. Students who are socially isolated or afflicted with special mental health needs offer particular targets for bullies. So too may children who attract attention for such reasons as race, ethnicity, gender or perceived sexual orientation, physical or emotional disability, obesity, small size, or lack of social skills. Researchers even report a link between bullying and children with special physical health needs such as speech or language impairment, vision problems, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes or muscular dystrophy.
Bullying victims may display psychosomatic symptoms resembling ones suffered by many child abuse victims, including sleep disturbances, bedwetting, abdominal pain, anxiety and depression, loneliness, low self-esteem and heightened fear for personal safety. Victimscan also suffer school phobia, increased truancy, or impaired concentration and classroom achievement. They may be at greater risk of dropping out of school before graduation, and may suffer lifelong emotional scars.
Worse yet, depression and suicidal thoughts appear common among nine- to thirteen-year-old victims. A rash of recent suicides have led medical and educational professionals speak about “bullycide” and “cyberbullycide.”
A Fragile Consensus
Here is the real danger posed by trivial complaints such as the one filed by the Western Hills father. By inviting derision, they can provide a rationale for trivializing real bullying, an outcome that would leave vulnerable and fragile students exposed to unchecked physical and emotional intimidation.
Statutes in virtually every state require local school boards to adopt written anti-bullying policies and implement bullying prevention curricula. The near universal state legislation demonstrates an emerging national consensus that bullying inhibits learning by compromising victims’ physical and emotional security as they try to get through the day. Students cannot learn effectively when their stomachs churn and they must watch over their shoulders.
In some cities and towns, however, the emerging national consensus remains fragile because implementing anti-bullying policies and curricula costs money that some taxpayers resent spending. Resistant taxpayers do not need much excuse to advocate return to the traditional “kids will be kids” attitude, which dismissed bullying as an ultimately harmless rite of passage that students would outgrow after “toughing it out.” Some observers even argued that bullying helps prepare its victims for the rough-and-tumble of the “real world.”
If parents in football and other sports now begin filing similar irresponsible copycat complaints in other states after one-sided losses, many true bullying victims might lose public support for whatever protections their schools might offer them. Why support public spending to remedy a problem that we snickered about after today’s football game? The prospect of diminished public support threatens collateral damage far more universal, and far more severe, than losing an otherwise forgettable gridiron matchup.
Rules and Escape
In Texas and elsewhere, state anti-bullying statutes do not regulate interscholastic sports for a perfectly good reason – no matter how one-sided the game, the final score bears no resemblance to bullying or cyberbullying. For one thing, bullies and cyberbullies play by no rules, but the essence of sports is that neutral game officials enforce the rulebook evenhandedly in a controlled environment.
Victims of bullying and cyberbullying also cannot easily escape their plight. A stronger bully may corner a weaker victim in a secluded hallway or elsewhere on school grounds that permits no way out. Cyberbullying is even worse. “If someone is picking on you in the school yard, you can go home,” said the mother of a 13-year-old Virginia boy who committed suicide with a shotgun after cyberbullies taunted him about his small size and dared him to kill himself for more than a month. “When it’s on the computer at home, you have nowhere to go.”
Athletes, however, can readily escape defeat by not trying out for the team, by quitting the team, or by not playing in games whose scores may turn out lopsided. In the hit movie, Hoosiers, high school coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) was right when he told his players that “[b]asketball is a voluntary activity; it’s not a requirement.”
High school athletes tend to hold a circle of friends, but bullying or cyberbullying victims have few places to turn. The vulnerability of these victims increases when a parent sullies serious anti-bullying initiatives with a nonsensical, and rightfully ridiculed, complaint such as the one the disappointed father filed in Texas.
[Douglas E. Abrams, A Coordinated Public Response to School Bullying, in Our Promise: Achieving Educational Equity for America’s Children (Carolina Academic Press 2009), http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1139038; Douglas E. Abrams, Bullying as a Disability in Public Elementary and Secondary Education, Missouri Law Review, volume 77, page 781 (2012), http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2035568]