For some of us, middle school and high school were times for creating wonderful memories of friendship, unique events and learning. For victims of bullying, the school experience can be a daily terror, mental and emotional abuse -- the crushing of self-esteem, and even physical violence. These students may carry the harrowing images and feelings with them for a lifetime, never fully recovering. School administrators, teachers, police and even parents too often ignore the ramifications of this daily harassment by peers, until it is too late.
My daughter Katie, co-president of the Human Relations Committee, a group of 40 students from Corona Del Mar High School dedicated to preventing the abuse of students by their peers, helped host a showing of the film Bully at The Lido Theatre in Newport Beach recently. The film's director, Lee Hirsch, was a victim of bullying himself and made this documentary so that the hidden lives of bullied children would be brought out in the open. He followed students and their families in Georgia, Iowa, Texas, Mississippi and Oklahoma during the 2009-10 school years. It focuses on the deaths of Tyler Long and Ty Smalley, victims of bullying who took their own lives. The film describes in great detail how the average American school kid cannot defend himself or herself against ridicule.
This abuse goes on every day at schools across the country. Just this month, a 16-year-old student and football player in Omaha was beaten by his teammates so brutally that it caused a blood clot near his brain. He still fights for his life. In late September, seven student-athletes in Arkansas were suspended for allegedly tying a noose around their black teammate's neck and started to hang him. Kids are beaten up and verbally taunted on school buses, the schoolyard, and in bathrooms. They are taunted in a way that may scar them for life.
In the social hierarchy of most schools, where students divide themselves into cliques and "types." Athletes sit at the top in terms of prestige and respect. Because of our veneration of sports, the feats of student-athletes, especially football players, give them top status. They tend to be a magnet for the most attractive members of the opposite sex. They tend to be better developed physically, larger and stronger than their peers. Sports builds tremendous camaraderie and friendships, so athletes tend to congregate with each other when they have time. If there is a desirable "crowd" of friends to be part of on a campus, they will almost always be at its center.
There are endless programs that can be brought into a school to promote tolerance. Many of them make the "bullier" experience for the first time what it feels like to be ostracized or physically threatened. There is a dehumanization of the target in bullying. Athletes need to be exposed to such programs and encouraged to set the tone of acceptance for their schools. Too often, they may be the students who bully. They need to be the students who set an example for others.
My whole law/agent practice has been built these last 38 years on the premise that athletes can be role models and trigger imitative behavior. Because they are perceived as "macho" and "courageous" they can deliver a message which penetrates the perceptual screen that many young people erect to tune out authority figures. A rebellious adolescent may devalue advice from parents, teachers and police, but will be receptive to a message from the right athlete. When I helped Lennox Lewis cut a public service announcement that said, "Real Men Don't Hit Women," or Oscar De La Hoya and Steve Young do a poster that proclaimed "Prejudice Is Foul Play," it made an impact. Athletes are perfectly positioned on high school campuses to help stop bullying when it starts. The ostensible reason they participate in sports is to build character, teamwork, and self-discipline. The most important message they could deliver is one of empathy, fairness and "helping" out the victims. The right athletes, properly motivated, could help stem this emotionally and physically crippling practice.