The Bully Pulpit

Last Sunday was one of the biggest American holidays. It was Super Bowl Sunday, the calorie-laden and alcohol-fueled celebration of two of America’s most hallowed traditions: armchair quarterbacking and watching television commercials.

This year’s game, between my hometown San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens, was probably the weirdest Super Bowl ever. It was the first brother versus brother coaching matchup in Super Bowl history, with the Raven’s coach John Harbaugh eking out a win over his younger sibling Jim. It was also characterized by the longest kickoff return, Jacoby Jones’ 108-yard touchdown run at the start of the second half, and the first intentional safety, with the Ravens sacrificing two points in order to run down the final clock and secure the win. Finally, I doubt any of us will forget the 35-minute delay after the power failed in half of the stadium.

But I don’t want to talk about the game itself. Rather, I want start by focusing on the curious things said by three players in the week before the game.

Many San Franciscans were shocked when Niners’ Cornerback Chris Culliver went on an anti-gay tirade during an interview with radio shock jock Artie Lange. The team owners and coaching staff quickly distanced themselves from his comments. Culliver himself gave a half-hearted apology the next day, stating that “The derogatory comments I made yesterday were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they are not how I feel.” I don’t necessarily buy that, but I respect his First Amendment right to be an ignorant homophobe.

Things got really weird the next day when two of Culliver’s teammates, linebacker Ahmad Brooks and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, denied appearing in the team’s anti-gay bullying ad despite clear video proof that they had. The San Francisco 49ers were the first NFL team to join the “It Gets Better” campaign, a project designed to combat the bullying experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth. Apparently, these two football players were okay appearing in an anti-bullying ad but not an anti-bullying ad that is aimed at gay youth. In response, founder of the “It Gets Better” project Dan Savage has deleted the 49ers video from the campaign’s website. This is the first time that an anti-bullying “It Gets Better” video has been removed.

Bullying is a serious and widespread problem in American schools, regardless of sexual orientation. One survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) found more than half of all children experience some degree of bullying or harassment in their school careers. Nearly one-in-eight is bullied on a regular basis, usually because of some perceived difference from social norms. These kids may be perceived as being too smart or they may be seen as not smart enough. They may be considered homely. They may be overweight, a fact that has been getting a lot of attention on popular television shows like The Biggest Loser. However, being gay or being perceived as gay is particularly problematic. As reported in the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s 2011 National School Climate Survey, over 80% of LGBT youth have been verbally or physically assaulted by their classmates and (surprisingly) their teachers because of their sexual orientation.

Bullying has serious consequences. Bullied kids often feel unsafe at school, and thus are more likely to drop out. Alternatively, they may resort to extreme measures to regain a sense of security, such as packing a defensive weapon. According to the APA’s bullying survey, a quarter of bullied kids have carried a knife or gun to school. Bullied kids are also more likely to suffer from depression or to have suicidal ideation. Last October, for example, a Staten Island teen killed herself by jumping in front of a moving train while her classmates watched in horror; she was the victim of intense harassment by several of her peers after being the victim of a sexual assault. In late January, a bullied gay Oregon teen attempted suicide by hanging himself from a piece of playground equipment; he died just before the Super Bowl kickoff after being taken off life support when neurological tests showed no brain activity.

Combatting this problem is hard. Cyber-bullying in particular is becoming increasingly common, and the anonymity and ubiquity of the Internet can make it can make it nearly impossible to stop harassment once it starts or to identify and punish a bully. Moreover, recent studies suggest that being a bully can actually boost a kid’s popularity. In one survey of middle school students in California, the children who were considered the coolest were the ones who “start fights or push other kids around” or who “spread nasty rumors about other kids.” Changing this Lord-of-the-Flies-like culture of the schoolyard may prove to be impossible, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.

Sociological questions aside, however, one of the biggest problems is right-wing opposition. Conservative politicians like Michele Bachman and organizations like Focus on the Family have opposed many anti-bullying programs for the sole reason that such programs also attempt to combat the widespread bullying of LGBT youth. According to the Family Research Council, bullying prevention initiatives are nothing more than thinly veiled attempts by gay rights activists to “recruit” students, a classic example of the ‘blame the victim’ mentality. Apparently it is okay to bully and harass gay kids because of their immoral and sinful lifestyle, an argument that at least two professional football players seem to publicly support.

The fact of the matter is that bullying, for whatever reason, is wrong. All kids, gay and straight, deserve the chance to feel safe at home, at school, and in the larger community and school officials and other policymakers should reject any attempt to block anti-bullying programs.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on February 7, 2013. It is also available on the WAMC website.]


About Sean Philpott-Jones

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Sean holds advanced degrees in microbiology, medical anthropology, and bioethics. He is currently Chair of the Bioethics Department at Clarkson University's Capital Region Campus and Director of the Bioethics Program of Clarkson University-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Director of two Fogarty-funded programs to provide research ethics education in Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean Basin. Until his term expired in August 2012, he served as Chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board, an advisory panel that reviews the scientific and ethical aspects of research involving human participants submitted to the EPA for regulatory purposes.
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